Addicted to the Creative Process

Monday, 5. October 2015 0:13 | Author:

Theatre, I often tell students, is a drug. Once you’re addicted, the only choices you have are to keep feeding your habit or go through a very painful and complex withdrawal. Those who succumb often embrace the drug and obsess over it.

This was brought home to me over the last couple of weeks in talking to two different actors about addiction-related matters. One, a method actor, was concerned about a role that he had taken might lead him to a negative mental place. So we spent a couple of hours devising ways to deal with that likelihood, arriving at what I think will be a successful procedure. His vacating the role because it might be unpleasant or even dangerous never occurred to either one of us. One does not simply say “no” to one’s addictions.

The second actor was concerned about how his artistic career decisions, i.e. which roles to go for, which graduate schools to consider might impact his partner, another actor. He said, “I know how I am. Once I start, I won’t stop.” Although momentarily in remission, he’s addicted, and while he might toy with the idea of giving it up, he’s not really serious about it. The relationship will have to accommodate his artistic needs or fail.

There are, of course, other addictions in theatre. There is the fame addiction, which, so far as I can determine has very little to do with anything artistic. There is the “applause addiction.” This is literally the need to hear applause regularly. It has caused some very talented people to break off their formal education and work in the (low or non-paying) semi-professional world instead of forgoing the applause for a time to move into the professional world with a much wider and more discerning audience.

These are not the addictions from which the two actors mentioned are suffering. These actors are addicted to the creative process. They are far less concerned with applause than they are with creating full characters out of a few words in a script and a little direction. Fame is nowhere on their radar. These are people that must do shows to satisfy their creative cravings.

Addiction to the creative process is not unique to actors. All artists seem to have it. Painters have to paint; they will paint with any kind of paint on any surface available. Writers have to write and will scribble on any sort of paper that is about. Photographers will shoot anything any time when the creative fever is on them. Dancers are always moving to whatever music can be heard and sometimes to music that no one else can hear. They’re addicted.

Some will find other things in life to be more important and will go through withdrawal to secure those things. The rest of us, however, will acknowledge our addiction to creativity, recognize that we really have no choice in the matter, and go forward. For many of us that going forward means not only acknowledging our addiction but embracing it. And that means, for some anyway, converting the addiction to an obsession (written about earlier, here and here).

Like most other addictions and obsessions, the need for the creative process will not bring happiness or satisfaction or ease. It will not bring peace of mind. Instead, it will bring a wide range of ever-changing emotions, a constant, sometimes manic, striving, and a sense of purpose. And that’s worth having.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)

Art in Motion, Part 3

Monday, 21. September 2015 0:52 | Author:

Moving art is not really a new thing. Even moving electronic art is not really a new thing. If you look back into the archives, you will find that there are at least two previous posts about moving art: “Want Art? The Gallery Will Come to You” and “The Medium is Not the Message…But It’s a Big Chunk of the Experience.” These articles discuss installation art, the Cinemagraph, a term which has now been trademarked, s[edition], an on-line gallery of high-profile artists that will “sell” you limited edition moving electronic art, and some others as well.

Most online moving art is in GIF format, although some, notably the pieces on s[edition], are in MP4 format. Within these two formats we find that the moving art world divides into genres, or types, based on visual treatment. The range is amazing; it includes the Cinemagraph, a still photograph with subtle motion in certain specific areas of the images to full animations lasting up to a minute. All of these images are looped so they run continuously and seamlessly.

Among the animated genres, one of the most innovative is the Cinemagraph (described above) but there are many others. There are geometrics that morph into other geometrics; there is animation of Escher images and Escher-like images; there are images that change colors; there are short cartoons. Whether subtle, isolated movement or full motion, there are levels of sophistication. Some are very sophisticated; others are not. And some artists manage to combine simplicity and sophistication and produce works that are elegant (in all of the meanings of that word).

Some moving art tells a story, sometimes “in [only] one second;” other pieces are attempts to convey a feeling or a way of seeing. For example, legally blind artist George Redhawk, whose work has become so influential that there is now a technique of GIF animation called “the Redhawk effect” says that he was, at first, attempting to communicate the confusion he experiences with his vision loss: “not enough data getting sent to the brain, and it tries to fill in the blanks with false information, so you can’t trust what your eyes or brain are telling you.” Some make a statement or provide commentary, such as Michael Green’s “Balloon Dog Deflated” based on Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog.”

In the last couple of years, moving electronic art in all types and formats has seen a huge surge in popularity. There are now numerous web sites devoted exclusively to moving electronic art. Some embrace all sorts of animated art; others specialize in one genre or another. A Google search for “gif art” or “cinemagraph” will result in millions of hits and allow the searcher to discover the range and depth of this blossoming area of digital arts. Not only are there numerous web sides, there are even contests for animated art, such as the recent Motion Photography Prize co-sponsored by Google and Saatchi Gallery.

Also in the last couple of years, new tools have been developed making it easier for artists to create moving art. Some of them specific to types of moving art, for example there is software designed specifically to create Cinemagraphs. Some are improved GIF editors, both in web-based versions and stand-alone programs. Some are MP4 editors. And some designed for other uses have been repurposed. George Redhawk uses software designed to morph one image into another both for morphing and for adding unusual motion to his surreal and fantasy images.

The inevitable next step, attempting to monetize moving art, has already begun.

Why should we be concerned about this new art form? Just for that reason: it’s a new art form, and from what I’ve seen it is definitely worth knowing about. The big reason, of course, is now that we know about it, some of us—particularly those already working digitally—may want to try out some of the newer software and bring our own ideas to this new means of expression.

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

High, Low, and Hot

Sunday, 6. September 2015 23:59 | Author:

The first time I encountered the question of high and low art was in college. When I questioned a professor on why Erskine Caldwell was not critically considered, I was treated to a very interested dose of double-speak, which boiled down to he didn’t know but felt obligated to defend the position of those who did. Since that time I have learned several things, not the least of which is that Caldwell’s books had, in fact, “won him critical acclaim, but also made him controversial among Southerners.” Perhaps the problem was that I went to the college in the South.

For those who haven’t encountered the terms, “high art is appreciated by those with the most cultivated taste. Low art is for the masses, accessible and easily comprehended.” It’s an idea that has its origins in the 18th century, and quickly became the “’correct’ way to classify art.”

We read over and over again that the distinction between high and low art has been eliminated. First it was the post-modernists. Then it was the French New Wave. Then it was Andy Warhol. And there were others, but the idea persists. In fact, the idea is so persistent that Ivan Hewett, writing for The Telegraph in January, 2015 asks “Is it time to end the distinction between high and low art?

Hewett is not the only one. Michael Nirenberg in “It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps” reviews the book by the same name specifically discussing the cover art work on men’s adventure magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. Nirenberg makes the point that Mort Künstler, Norman Saunders, Clarence Dore, George Mayers, George Gross, John Styga, Joe Little, Walter Popp, James Bama, and Norm Eastman have created cover art that is nothing short of amazing. “Each page is a study in classic fine art illustration….These artists were able to harness the high art aspirations of American realism and apply it to what was considered low culture values at the time.”

Huffington Post Senior Arts and Culture Editor, Katherine Brooks also wants to end the distinction. In “I Beg Of Your, Please Stop Saying ‘This Isn’t Art” she says, “one man’s trashy art is another man’s masterpiece.” Her assertion is based on scientific studies which find that our aesthetic experiences activate brain areas “that are largely constant across individuals. But these areas are responsible for mediating our subjective and personal experiences.” She concludes that Kant’s idea that beauty is subjective is, in fact, correct and that “humans are capable of having very, very different tastes in art.”

So, at least according to these writers, it’s not about the subject matter or the appeal of the work (although some would say it is about the quality of the work). The division between high and low art is completely artificial, having grown out of a period when the classification and sub-classification of virtually everything was thought to be imperative.

It isn’t. Whether we appreciate Claude Monet or Robert Crumb or Steven King or Leo Tolstoy or Neil Gaiman or Pablo Picasso or one of the “pulp artists” listed above is not important. What should be more concerning is that there are people, educated people, cultured people, people of great taste who appreciate each of these artists. Indeed, there are some who appreciate all of these artists and many more. The question is: what to those who appreciate it all know that we don’t? Perhaps we should be learning whatever that is.

(The title? It came from a radio show that I listened to when I was quite young and radio station offerings were an eclectic jumble of shows that would appeal to different audience segments at various times of the day. “High, Low, and Hot” was an afternoon show that featured blues, jazz—old and new, and R&B, with complete disregard for which were considered high and which low. It was, I am discovering, remarkably influential in forming my personal aesthetic.)

Category:Aesthetics | Comment (0)

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)