Idea to Art—a Method

Monday, 24. August 2015 0:37 | Author:

Some artists have a condition that is the opposite of writer’s block; they have so many ideas that it is difficult to choose one to work on. This causes such artists often spend much of their time going in circles trying to decide which idea to address. This, of course, can be a very frustrating problem and can lead to inaction if not complete paralysis. Uncertainty becomes the artist’s predominant mode.

The mode can continue to dominate even after an idea is selected. There is then uncertainty about the chosen topic and how to deal with it: is it too big? Is it too little? Is it too complex? Is it too simple? Is it too amorphous? Is it trivial? What media is appropriate? What structure will best serve the topic? The questions go on and the artist finds him/herself again going in circles.

What to do? My suggestion is for the artist to develop a methodology for moving from idea to art. For some this idea is intimidating and generates another set of questions. How would one go about doing such a thing? How is it possible to figure out what methodology to select? How is it possible to know if this is the right methodology? Will this make the work less than it could be? Is this even artistic?

Although it sounds almost contrary to the notion of art, the rules and methodology set out to help students write essays will also work to help the artist establish a workable approach regardless of the subject matter.

The first phase of writing, as described by The Little, Brown Handbook (Fifth Edition) is Development and is the one which offers the most useful ideas for the artist. This phase consists of four steps: Discovering, Gathering, Focusing, and Organizing.

Discovering includes two parts: (1) selecting a topic: the book suggests that the writer select something he/she cares about. This certainly works for any artist. Even though many artists care about many things, he/she can develop criteria to be used in selecting the next idea to work on. The second part of Discovering helps in this regard; that is (2) limiting the subject. Most writing texts provide numerous examples of how one might do such a thing.

Limiting the subject is perhaps the most important step in this methodology for the artist. The limits that he/she places on the idea will in many ways determine the direction of work. For example, certain limitations will eliminate certain media and certain structures; at the same time those limits will suggest other media and other structures. As these avenues become apparent, it is likely that the artist will be led in the direction of the remaining three steps: Gathering, Focusing, and Organizing, all of which are necessary for the creation of a piece of art as well as an academic paper.

Gathering consists of acknowledging purpose and assembling the pieces that will support that purpose, and finding a pattern of development, what artists might refer to as “structures.” The next step is Focusing. In writing, this means developing a thesis; in art it means essentially the same thing: refining the purpose to decide what specifically is to be said. Then finally is Organizing, bringing all the pieces together and shaping them to support that Focus.

So whenever the world of our ideas becomes too big to handle, we might consider applying this methodology. It is an approach that has allowed any number of freshmen to write acceptable papers and it can help us as well. It is not a rigid system; we will soon discover that we must adapt and modify as we develop the subject and it begins to take on an artistic life of its own.

Even though it sounds very mechanical and unartistic, this approach provides a method to move from idea to art, and it works.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)

Honing Your Edgy

Monday, 10. August 2015 0:12 | Author:

Edgy, in terms of art, is one of those words that fall into the I-can’t-define-it-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it categories. Since the term has come up in conversation recently, I thought I would seek some definitions. Here are a few: “new and unusual in a way that is likely to make some people uncomfortable;” “Applied to books, music, or even haircuts which tend to challenge societal norms and reveal the dark side. Cutting edge;” “things, behaviors or trends which are provocative or avant-garde.Edgy seems to have connotations that go further than those associated with cutting edge, generally defined as “forefront; lead.”

Both Charles Bukowski and Edward Albee have been called edgy, and both have earned that label. Albee has always exceeded contemporary norms for playwriting. When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hit the stage in 1962, much of the talk was about how edgy it was; when it was released as a film in 1966, it was considered to be “pushing the envelope both in terms of language and content.” When the play was revived on Broadway in 2005, some of the language was updated, e.g. “Screw you!” changed to “Fuck you!”—probably to reflect the times and keep the play as edgy as it could be 43 years after it was initially performed.

Bukowski, so far as I can determine, did nothing that was not edgy. In fact, edginess seems to have informed almost everything he thought or said publicly. For example:

When you flip the pages, nothing but butterflies, near bloodless butterflies. I am actually shocked when I go through this magazine because nothing is happening. And I guess that’s what they think a poem is. Say, something not happening. A neat lined something, so subtle you can’t even feel it. This makes the whole thing intelligent art. Balls! The only thing intelligent about a good art is if it shakes you alive, otherwise it’s hokum.

Bukowski was talking about poetry in a magazine he had run across, but he could have been talking about any form of art. While Albee is much more reserved in the advice he offers, Bukowski encourages, almost demands that artists be edgy: “Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick…We must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary.”

So what, if anything, does that mean to the individual artist? An artist certainly does not have to produce edgy work. An artist can produce work with very round edges if he/she wants. Some would say that Thomas Kinkade did exactly that and made a great deal of money in the process. Again, such an approach is not limited to painting or poetry or any particular medium; it rather is a philosophy of what art is really about and what it should do.

If an artist decides that he/she agrees with Bukowski and really wants to produce work that will be avant-garde, provocative and perhaps dark, it is certainly his/her prerogative. The trouble is that when the artist steps completely out of the safe zone and goes too far, he/she can lose any potential audience. And that is a risk some artists are willing to take. But if an artist wants to produce edgy work and still have an audience, then he/she will have to produce work that goes almost too far.

Deciding how far to go and still produce honest work can be challenging, but worthwhile. For example, in the past my photographic work has tended toward the subtle; recently I have begun to experiment with edgy. Whether these experiments will alter my overall body of work remains to be seen, but I have certainly found the experience valuable. Based on that, I would encourage you to give  a try, or at least think about giving it a try. Of course, the most difficult part will be deciding how far to go and exactly where the line is between too far and not far enough.edgy

Good luck.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Photography, Presentation | Comment (0)

Quit Your Whining!

Sunday, 26. July 2015 23:33 | Author:

Frequently, I hear artists complaining about the lack of support the arts receive in today’s America. Theatres, except those on Broadway and a few select others, are running at less than capacity; some run at such reduced capacity that a half-house is considered good. So we whine.

Older artists will tell you that this was not the case in the past, that there was a “golden age” when all seats were full and paintings flew off the wall. How long ago that was depends largely upon the age of the artist making the statement. And there was a time—within my memory—when theatres had far more audience support that we see today. That, of course, was before 200+ channel cable television and the internet. Now we have not only the competition of cable television, but of multiple web sites streaming video and games on demand 24/7.

So those who were just looking for an entertainment to fill their time now have more choices than they can consider. Why would people dress to go out and sit with other people they don’t know to see actors perform when they can sit at home in their underwear watching the best that Hollywood has to offer? In terms of entertainment, many audience members see little distinction between live theatre and streaming video, so live theatre artists whine.

What also seems to be gone are the days when buying original art was popular, if such days ever existed. Walk through any gallery; visual and plastic arts are not moving, particularly those pieces that are priced in the three-digits-plus range—at least until one gets to the multi-million dollar level. (And those auction purchases seem to be not so much about art as about conspicuous acquisition and investment.) The vast middle-ground moves very little original art, and for much the same reasons that theatre doesn’t: reproductions are everywhere. If a person is looking for decoration (and, face it, most people are) there are thousands of pre-framed lithographs of both famous and unknown work, “original oil paintings” mass-produced in “painting factories” in Asia, illustrations, internet images. So why pay for the real original vision of a living artist? The artists whine.

But whining about today’s conditions is not productive; neither is longing for the “good old days.” Those days, if they ever existed, are gone; now we have to deal with it what is.

A multimedia artist I know says that acquiring art is like making a love connection and I think she may well be right. The collector sees the art, connects with the art, wants or needs to have an on-going relationship with the art, which means, unless the art is available to view on the internet, that the collector must buy the art. So the art goes home with its new owner to continue the love relationship.

And we know there are all sorts of “love connections,” some deep and long-term and some shallow and temporary. Different aspects attract differently, and most know that we can change those to attract a different sort of interest from a different sort of person. Likewise, the artist can modify his/her output to attract a different kind of collector.

That’s one way of dealing with things. Another way is to remember why we got into art (or art got into us) in the first place. It wasn’t about money. It was likely about having something to say or having a need to create. If we remember why we do it, and recognize what the market conditions really are, we can produce our art, put it out into the world, and quit our whining.

Category:Audience, Theatre | Comment (0)

The Problem with Porn

Tuesday, 14. July 2015 23:23 | Author:

One of the Terms of Use of a web-site hosting company to which I was planning on moving my web sites is “No adult content.” That phrase is usually code for pornography, but still, it is an ambiguous term that is open to a lot of interpretations. Since some of my work is not appropriate for children and because I didn’t want to make an expensive mistake, I asked for a clarification. They asked to see my work so they could make a determination. I sent them links to my photography web site and to a couple of projects that have not yet appeared on the web. They concluded that my work was definitely not pornography and that they would be happy to host my site.

This incident led me to think about pornography—what it is, how it works. So I did a little informal research. One of the first things I discovered was that no two people have the same definition. Even dictionaries disagree about the definition. I discovered that almost everyone has an opinion. Some I asked even took the discussion beyond definitions and opined about various sociological and psychological impacts of porn. It also became apparent that the range of activities that constitute porn also varies from person to person.

Definitions seemed not only to revolve around content, but around treatment as well: “intercourse filmed for commercial purposes,” “impersonal recording of sex,” “a visual recording of sex that has no artistic merit,” “it has to do with intent.”

Some could not frame a definition and were of the “I can’t really give you a definition, but I know it when I see it” school of thought made famous by Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio. (Obviously, the sales staff at my new hosting site are in this camp.)

Interestingly, almost everyone—except those whose ideas included an extremely wide range of “offensive” behaviors—had a definition that contained at least one element of the Miller Test, although no one quoted it directly or stated it in exactly the same way. (I’m sure that some I asked had never even heard of Miller v. California.)

Why is that important? Well, one of the elements of the Miller test that was mentioned had to do with art. The respondent said that porn is a work about sex “having little or no artistic merit.” (Actually Miller is considerably broader than that.)

It turns out that no one knows what that phrase means either—mostly because no one can articulate the components of artistic merit. Again, they know it when they see it, or so they say; they just don’t have the words to define it. In this case, however, I may have a clue. A couple of people that I talked to suggested that one of the problems with pornography is that it leaves nothing to the imagination. A slight change of wording yields “pornography does not engage the imagination of the audience.” And that, I think, in addition to being true, is the key.

The next step for me was to look at pieces of art that are non-pornographic in terms of content. Of the pieces that are, to my mind, very good, those that exhibit significant artistic merit, in some way engage the audience’s imagination. It may be that the audience wonders how the story ends; it may be that the audience tries to discern the meaning of the piece; it may be that audience spends some time putting the elements of the piece together; it may be some entirely different thing. There are certainly many ways to engage an audience’s imagination.

But some artists don’t bother. Art that falls into the less-than-significantly-good categories, even though it adheres to the principles of design and all of the corollaries, does not engage the viewer’s imagination. This seems to hold true for all media, at least all that I examined. It’s a simple thing—engaging the imagination of the audience—but a very important thing. It is something of which all artists should be aware if they are not already.

So the problem with porn, or at least one of the problems with porn, is the same as the problem with much art that we find lacking: it fails to engage the imagination of its audience. Engaging the imagination of the viewer may not be on our minds as we create, but perhaps it should be. Perhaps it should be foremost in our minds—that is if we want our work to be the best it can be.

Category:Aesthetics, Communication | Comment (0)

Seeing with New Eyes

Monday, 29. June 2015 0:04 | Author:

One of the most difficult things that artists have to do is to look at their work with new eyes every time they review what they’ve done. While we might get away without doing this in the creation phase, it’s an absolute must in the editing phase of making our art. If we don’t bring new eyes to our work, we miss things, we wander off in nonproductive directions, only to wonder later how we missed this or that or the other thing. The explanation is simple; we didn’t see it.

Although I have tried to train myself to look with fresh eyes, I recently failed to see what was right in front of me. Another photographer for whom I have a great deal of respect offered a critique of one of my latest photography projects. He said that he thought the work looked “forced” (although he was not quite satisfied with that word). He is of the opinion that no matter how much time and preparation goes into the making of a photograph, the result should look effortless, an idea that I agree with and have written about. He went on to say that all of my work that he had seen up until this point had had that quality of effortlessness, but this project did not.

And he was right. I had had so much trouble with the project that I wrote about it, but thought that I had resolved it. And even though I thought that I had found the right new forms for this undertaking, I had known that something was not quite right with a number of the finished pieces. I had no idea, however, what that something was. He told me—at least what he thought. The conversation caused me to go back to my other work and examine it in a new light—never a bad idea. Once I had done that, it was easy to see what he was talking about with regard to this project.

Although I hardly ever think of apparent effortlessness as a separate component, I do think that is a quality of good art. I therefore try to make it a part of all my work. In this instance, I failed to do that. So then I had to deal with the why of that. And the why was that the project had been so difficult, had required the development of completely new structures, that I was ready to sign off on it before it was really done. Otherwise, I would not have had that uneasy feeling that something was not quite right.

The feeling was correct; something wasn’t quite right, but I was so ready to close the file on the project that I missed it. In this case, I needed someone outside myself to see with new eyes. Once he had done this and told me what he saw, it was glaringly obvious. The project is not finished.

All of this could have been avoided had I not gotten so wrapped up in the difficulty of the project that I forgot to look with new eyes. And that cannot be. If one is to produce really good art, one must approach the work at every session with fresh eyes.

It’s why we put things away before we put things away before we edit them—to give ourselves time to forget a little so it’s easier to look with fresh eyes in the editing process. And it’s certainly not true just for photography. No matter what medium we work in, we must approach our work daily with new eyes—if for no other reason than to insure that our vision is being properly realized. If it’s not, we need to stop and fix it. It’s not easy; it sometimes requires great effort. The results, however, are worth it.

Category:Creativity, Photography | Comment (0)

Art Must Be Important

Sunday, 14. June 2015 23:46 | Author:

Tennessee Williams, in an interview with James Grissom, said “Of course art should be about something big. Something terribly big must be at stake. I don’t see this anymore. Our art is becoming terribly polite and apologetic, much like us. It slinks away like a sagging breast, empty of milk or promise or comfort.”

If you have read or seen the plays of Williams, you know that “something big” does not necessarily mean big in the sense of news or nations. He really means big in terms of the human condition, or big to the playwright himself or his audience. We might substitute the word important and be closer to what Williams really meant. Something really important must be at stake. Art should be about something important. Absolutely.

If something is important, it generally means that the artist feels strongly about it. And if the artist feels strongly he/she may create art that has sufficiently strength to offend someone. Sadly, society has, at least in the US, come to believe that not being offended is a right. Williams did the interview in 1982; if anything, it’s worse today—at least in some parts of the country.

If you haven’t run across this issue, you only have to look as far as your local collegiate theatre department. Those of us in educational theatre deal with this every day; for example, we worry about how the plays we select will be received, not in terms of message or in terms of artistry, but in terms of offense to certain segments of the audience. You may find that silly, but when funding relies on public monies and when administration is sensitive to community complaints, it becomes a real concern.

This also happens in the commercial sector. I recall several discussions with independent producers who are constantly self-censoring their selection of material because of concern with offending sponsors and potential donors.

And it happens in arts other than theatre, both in educational and commercial sectors. A friend who is a photographer recently had two pieces rejected by two different galleries (which had previously shown his work) as “too controversial.” There are many artists, visual and otherwise, who would love to hear that their work was too controversial; it would be validation that they were doing the right thing with their art, that their art said something, that their art was important. The downside, of course, is that the work doesn’t get shown, at least in those venues who eschew controversial work, which is the majority of venues.

So we self-censor; a multimedia artist told me recently that she modifies her content based on whether she is making the work to sell or for herself. Williams would not have approved; he railed against self-censorship in the same interview: “When did we become so small and so apologetic? Why do we apologize for our humanity? Love what you love, and make no apologies. This is your identity. The most horrendous suspensions of freedom are self-imposed. We imprison ourselves daily, hourly.”

Admittedly, it’s much safer to make trivial, non-controversial art, but perhaps safe is not the best choice, at least if we think even a little like Williams. We need to quit making polite, apologetic art and instead have the courage make our art about something important.

Category:Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0)

The Modern Audience: Two Approaches

Monday, 1. June 2015 0:05 | Author:

Much has been written about the place of live theatre in the contemporary world. Part of what is interesting about that topic is the artist-audience connection in the 21st century. Two things have brought this to mind recently. The first was an article in The Telegraph about award-winning playwright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard. In the article, Stoppard complained that he had to rewrite a scene in his newest play, The Hard Problem, three times “making a particular allusion more and more obvious each time.” He says that over the last 40 years the audience’s knowledge of Shakespearean drama (to which Stoppard makes constant references) has steadily declined to the point that such knowledge is almost non-existent. For Stoppard this is a devastating turn of events.

The second incident was Kneehigh’s recent production of Tristan & Yseult as part of the Alley Theatre’s 2014-15 season. This production was arguably the best piece of theatre to have been presented in the Houston area for a number of years, yet many potential audience members chose not to attend. Some that I talked to said they had planned to skip the production simply because of the title; some because of the description: a tale of an ancient Cornish love triangle, the same love triangle that appears with different names in the literature of many different cultures and countries, classic and archetypal in every way.

Like Stoppard, most artists give meaning to their work through reference and allusion both consciously and subconsciously, and most assume that their audiences will “get it.” If they don’t, a large part of the complexity of the work will be lost, and even though the work may be engaging, even entertaining, it will not be perceived in its complete fullness, with all the overtones and undertones.

What happens when the audience does not have the classical education to understand the references and allusions in the production? Stoppard’s choice is to rewrite and dumb it down.

Tristan & Yseult, on the other hand, was in no way dumbed-down. Audiences did not have to have a classic education to understand and appreciate the show. Such an education enriched the experience, but was completely unnecessary, because the creative team moved past verbal allusions and, incorporating broad references to both historical and modern western culture, employing not only acting, but music, dance, and elements of circus. This group brought a very old mythic, archetypal story to a very new audience with all the meaning and immediacy that is possible. In fact, Theatermania said that the show was “a sensory feast. Each design detail is integral to the story, and brilliantly put to use by Rice and her cast. By the end you’ll be willing to follow them anywhere, be it Cornwall, Ireland, or beyond. The performances are incredibly committed. Kneehigh is the gold standard of theatrical rigor, fortified by a heavy dose of fun.”

While we might take issue with an educational system that leaves an audience ignorant of Shakespeare and other classics, the fact is that today’s audiences lack that background. This lack of classic education and inability to grasp allusions and references is not something that impacts only dramatic arts. Serious visual and plastic artists must deal with it as well.

And there are choices in how we, as artists, deal with it. We can, like Stoppard, rewrite and dumb-down things until the audience “gets it,” or, like Kneehigh, find new ways to present material that connects today’s audience directly to meaning, regardless of how classical or archetypal that might be.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Theatre | Comments (1)

The Case for Craft

Monday, 4. May 2015 0:44 | Author:

Every day it seems that there is at least one article in my news feed about creativity; some days there is more than one. And since we in the US are an entrepreneurial society, I find my email full of announcements for this or that seminar or webinar or workshop in creativity—for a small fee. (There’s probably a future post in this.)

Let me be clear: I am certainly not opposed to creativity. I have blogged about it many times and probably will again. But what I’m not seeing in all this talk about creativity is any discussion of craft. In fact, there seem to be very few discussions about craft and the mastery of craft at all. The message is almost that creativity and self-expression are all there is to making art. This, as many of us know, is not the case. If the prospective artist does not have a mastery of the medium, then all the creativity and self-expression in the world are essentially useless.

This is an issue in a number of arts, but is more pronounced in some. For example, there are a number of photographers who use only “canned” effects to achieve their final images. These are likely the same photographers who neglect to learn all of the dials and settings on their cameras. After all, both cameras and software are very smart and can do most of the work so the photographer actually needs to learn very little. However, while images created that way might be technically quite good (exposure, shutter speed, color), they may be very much lacking. Julian Calverley in an interview about professional photographers shooting with iPhones, notes “Just because you own a nice camera, doesn’t mean you can take a great shot. Composition, lighting and understanding a subject are things that will always remain.” Calverley also notes that the photographer needs an eye for a good shot and lots of skills to make that shot possible. Craft.

In another field, actors who achieve some measure of success early on often rely on whatever skills they may have developed or show an extraordinary devotion to one particular school of acting. The result is that their acting quickly goes stale because they are essentially one-trick ponies who demonstrate little inclination to develop their craft in different directions, or sometimes even to try to improve at all. If you talk to seasoned actors, men and women who make their living on the stage or in front of a camera, you will hear them discuss their “tool kit.” If you explore the metaphor further, you discover that those actors have gathered techniques from a variety of schools and sources and use ideas from the entire spectrum of available theory, including personal invention. Moreover, you will find that those actors continue to train, experiment, and hone their craft.

In an earlier post, I posited that great art requires great craft. The gist of that argument was that mastery of craft underlies all great—or even good—art. This is really obvious in arts such as music and ballet, where it is simply understood from the outset that the artist must master his/her instrument before anything approaching art can occur. Artists in other fields where a wrong note or a missed step are not so apparent should take heed. The necessity for mastery of craft is no less necessary—if that artist wants to excel.

We must learn not only to use our tools but to master our craft in every sense of the word, then work to maintain that mastery. Only then can we give full expression to our creativity and perhaps make lasting, meaningful art.

Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (3)

Gaming the System, Part 2

Monday, 20. April 2015 1:00 | Author:

Last year I posted and article called “Gaming the System” which began with the notion that if one studied a given juried show sufficiently, one might be able to develop a recipe for acceptance. So I decided to try it, and found that it might not be as easy to do as to say. In the past I have done somewhat similar things such as picking pieces for juried shows based on knowledge of the juror. This time it didn’t work. However, my lack of success taught me several lessons:

  1. Hubris never goes unpunished. This is something I should have known from reading the Greek tragedies or just from living, but it is a lesson that we often forget, particularly when things are going well, and we have a string of successes. We think we have it all figured out. We don’t. And is well to be reminded of this from time to time.
  2. There are always variables that we do not take into consideration. In this case, one (and maybe two) of the jurors was different from the years prior. This means that the flavor and focus of the show became unpredictable. Not everything can be anticipated.
  3. Likewise, there are always details that we miss or misinterpret; sometimes those little things matter more than we know.
  4. Risking failure is good for us, and if there are no occasional failures, there is no real risk. And this was, at least by my standards, a spectacular failure. There was a significant investment of both time and money, and while, in my estimation, the resultant images were very good, they do not really fit with the rest of my portfolio, so I am not really sure what, if anything, I might do with them. So, yes, this project could definitely be considered a failure.
  5. The biggest lesson that I learned, however, was that even if I know the parameters required, I cannot make art that does not at least try to match my personal aesthetic. It became apparent as early as the planning stage for this project that I am not able to create art to satisfy requirements completely outside myself. Even knowing the recipe, I had to make the pieces my own, had to make the say what I really thought. Probably this is something I should have known about myself before, but I did not, and least consciously. Then I had to reconcile my new learning concerning my aesthetic and the fact that I often direct plays that are aimed at a particular type of audience or prepared for a particular venue. The difference is that once the play is selected for whatever reason, what I do with it during the rehearsal process is to shape it in accordance with my own personal aesthetic. Again, this is something that should have been obvious, but, for some reason, was not.
  6. Evidently, I do not have what it takes to game the system in the way that Dan Colen, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst seem to. This may not be a terrible thing.

So my grand experiment in gaming the system resulted in six valuable lessons. Even though the project was a failure, these lessons make it—to my mind—a worthwhile endeavor, an endeavor worth writing about. As a result of this experience, I will do exactly what I have encouraged other artists to do: continue to risk, sometimes fail, learn from the failure, move on.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity, Originality | Comment (0)

Focus, Energy, Concentration, and Presence

Monday, 6. April 2015 0:24 | Author:

The difference between Broadway actors and student actors is often not talent—at least not completely. It is the energy, focus, presence, and ability to exist in the moment for the length of the show and the length of the run. These are things that are difficult to teach and difficult to learn, at least to judge by what we see in the classroom—and on stage. However, I recently saw an outstanding example of these qualities in an actor, and that caused me to rethink.

What happened was that I accepted an invitation to a final dress rehearsal of a children’s musical. The cast was made up of acting instructors, mostly members on Actor’s Equity, one child lead, and an ensemble made up of selected students. Never having seen a children’s show by this particular organization, I had no idea what to expect, nor did I know who was involved, since there were no programs at this rehearsal. I was pleasantly surprised. Production values were excellent; I had seen some of the adult performers work before and was not disappointed in this production. The ensemble consisted of 15-20 kids of varying ages; all had wireless microphones, indicating to me that they were not just background, but were expected to really sing and be heard. And they acquitted themselves well. The identical precision that one sees in a seasoned ensemble was missing, of course, but what replaced it was a youthful energy and individual interpretation of direction and choreography that revealed a great deal about each actor’s mindset and level of development (a blog for another time, perhaps).

What really struck me was a single member of the ensemble. This was a young woman of about 14 (her age was later confirmed). When the ensemble was singing and dancing, she most often occupied a position immediately left of whichever principal was featured in the number. She did not need the propitious positioning to be noticed. It is difficult to remember any performer who exhibited more focus, energy, concentration, and presence than this teenager. I later learned that several other audience members had a similar response.

In every number, she was fully engaged, focused, and performing with an energy that is seldom equaled. And she did it number after number. So rare is this type of performance that I found myself waiting for her next stage appearance and concentrating on her more than the principals. If there was music playing, she was channeling it with her whole body whether she was singing or not. When there was no music, she slipped convincingly into whatever character she was playing at the time.

Some would say that the director should have asked her to tone it down. I have to disagree. Given that she was working with professionals, the director should have asked those professionals to step up their game. This was not a case of “the kid was cute;” this was a case of the kid was superlative.

Why take the time to write about an ensemble member I do not know in a children’s show that has already closed? Because what she did was exactly what we who teach want actors to do: exist in the moment, completely focused on the role, hitting the stage with outstanding presence, and performing with unflagging, almost preternatural energy.

A more important question is why this teenager exhibited these characteristics and other same-aged members of the ensemble with the same teachers did not. My guess is that she not only listened to her teachers, but somehow had the internal mental and emotional mechanisms to put it all together.

That is the part that nobody I know knows exactly how to teach. We all say essentially the same things about concentration, focus, energy, presence, mindfulness and the necessity of these qualities. We provide exercises and methodologies. But only one in 50 (if that many) will put it all together. Those are the ones who get the work. Those are the ones who, when they are on stage, we must watch.

These are difficult qualities to instill in students. One wonders if we just haven’t yet figured out how to teach our students how put it all together, or if it is inborn and we just help develop it. My suspicion is that it is a combination of several factors: the instructor’s ability to clearly explain these difficult concepts coupled with the students’ ability to absorb information and the individual student’s mental, emotional, spiritual makeup, plus all those other factors, unique to each student, that determine the level of the student’s commitment and his/her willingness to implement new ideas.

Whether I have an acting class or not, this subject occupies my thoughts frequently. If you have any related thoughts you would like to share, I would certainly appreciate hearing them.

Category:Education, Theatre | Comments (1)