The Problem with Comfort Zones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“It Doesn’t Get Any Easier”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Category:Creativity, Productivity | Comments (1)

“It Always Comes Together”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Category:Creativity, Theatre | Comment (0)

Two More Days

Sunday, 23. February 2014 22:57 | Author:

When other theatre people ask me how the show is going, my standard response is, “We need another week.” Since I thought that this feeling was unique to educational theatre, I was surprised the other day when I asked a friend who is a professional actor how his show was going. His response was, “We could use two more days.” My takeaway was that no matter what level we work at, we are never quite ready for opening, at least mentally. And, having done this for a number of years, I know that even though the director and most of the production staff wish for another week or two days or however much time they think they need to apply the last bit of polish, the show is really ready, and probably has been for a couple of days. What it really needs is an audience.

The desire for extra time is probably not about a need for perfection, which, as most of us know is an artistic killer. Rather it springs from a desire to make it better. We want dress up our kid, wipe its nose and scrub its face before we show it to the world. We want to make it as good as we can make it, and we are sure that if we had just a few more days, we could do that and go into opening with the confidence that this is as good as we could possibly do.

It’s a function of being creative. Creative people never quit creating. We look at where we are in a particular project and invent six new things that we want to try to move the project forward. It’s a process that does not stop—unless we have some sort of creative block. So even the day before opening, we have new things that we invented overnight that we want to try because they would make the play better, and we know that if we had just two more days or one more week or whatever interval we name, we could add and refine and improve.

The world of theatre, however, does not allow that. Usually, opening is set before we begin rehearsals, so whatever we do has to be done before that date. Even though we might have done this before and know how to maximize productive time, it seems that we always fall “just that much short” of having the time that we need.

Artists in other media have a similar situation, except more often than not, there is no official “opening night,” unless the artist is working toward a deadline for a show. Without such a cut-off, we are likely to continue to develop new facets of our art, never actually finishing, but continuing to make it incrementally better each time we work on it. So we continue to tweak and adjust and improve. It’s a cycle that can continue indefinitely.

We must recognize that, if we are to be genuinely productive, we have to let go. If an “opening night” is not part of our particular art, we would do well to establish one; then we can wrap up this project and move on to the next. But we must realize that with every opening night, whether externally established or self-imposed, comes the feeling that we need just two more days…

Category:Creativity, Productivity, Theatre, Uncategorized | Comment (0)

Talent is Not Enough

Sunday, 9. February 2014 23:34 | Author:

In talking with a former student about a paying gig she had just booked, I mentioned her talent, among other things. She replied, “Talent is nothing if you weren’t taught how to access it and use it.” She’s right, of course, but I had never thought about it in exactly those terms.

Those who teach in the arts beyond the secondary level are aware that talent by itself is not enough. This often comes as a surprise to our students, who have been told since they were able to perform in whatever art they excel how talented they were and how that would insure success as they grew to adulthood. They were misinformed, although probably with the best intentions.

Parents, with few exceptions, have no frame of reference for talent. They know only that their progeny excel at some art or the other and that praise is being heaped on their child by teachers and friends, and so, because they are proud, they join the party. The problem comes when the child develops the expectation of success based on the responses they have garnered in the past. At the very least, they need to memorize that disclaimer that comes on all investment portfolios: “past performance does not guarantee future results.” It doesn’t.

So the children go to high school and join a small pool of other talented peers and form their own clique, the members of which get all the leads in the plays, win all the art prizes, and continue to impress parents and friends. All are encouraged to continue developing their art.

Then they get to college, where they are in class with 25 others who are equally talented, and they begin to realize that they may not be all that special after all. This notion comes home with a vengeance when they realize that they and the other 25 members of their class are really the underclass, that there are three more years of equally talented and more experienced artists ahead of them, and on top of that are the smaller percentage of those who are graduate students. It should be obvious that no matter how much talent each individual has, the rewards are fewer than the number of people in the room, so, if they are to excel, they will have to learn to access and use the talent they have and then go beyond that.

Still, it takes some counseling and convincing to persuade these students that talent is not enough. Not only must they learn how to use their talents, they must combine that with a willingness to work. Stephen King was exactly right when he said, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” King is not the only person who has voiced this opinion. One can read similar quotations by people as diverse as Andrew Carnegie, Irving Stone, Aleister Crowley, Lou Holtz, Émile Zola, and Kurt Vonnegut.

And sometimes even talent and hard work are not enough. Success, however, you define it, is elusive, and for some seems to remain just out of reach. And although there are no guarantees, there is no question that we have a far better chance with talent and hard work than with either alone. And there is no question that the art we produce will be better than if we tried to rely on talent alone.

Category:Education | Comment (0)

Phoning It In

Sunday, 26. January 2014 23:52 | Author:

We’ve all experienced it at one time or another: a teacher, a student, an actor, a photographer, an artist, a writer—phoning it in. The results are usually not terrible; they’re just not as good as they could be. So phoning it in is something to be avoided, at least in my estimation.

There are a hundred reasons for it, and none of them really matter. What matters is the reduction in quality. When we phone it in, our work may be passable, sometimes even good by certain standards. But it’s not our best.

Because of all the activities in which I am currently engaged (and cannot eliminate), I feel that I am getting very close to phoning in this blog; and that is something I do not want. To avoid that a change is necessary. Rather than just taking some time off as some have advised, this blog will be moving to a bi-weekly publication schedule. How long this will last I am not sure. That will probably depend on how this new schedule fits and functions.

This move is not due to lack of material, rather for lack of time to deal with the material that I have, material that continues to grow on a weekly basis. What is lacking is the time to think it over and allow myself to see connections and patterns and decide what is really worth talking about.

As those of you who have read this blog for a while know, I am a firm believer in artistic discipline, so moving to a longer time frame will still keep my publishing regular but will provide a little more time for thinking and development. I don’t know that the quality will improve, but hopefully it will not diminish.

Category:Audience, Communication | Comment (0)

Rejection: Part of the Gig

Monday, 20. January 2014 0:19 | Author:

Acting students learn early on that they must deal with rejection. It’s the result of the way things are done in the world of theatre: eight roles in a play, twenty-four actors auditioning, sixteen actors rejected. It happens every time there is an audition. Actors also learn that the reasons for rejection are manifold and often have very little to do with them personally. The tough ones keep auditioning; the others find another way to live.

Rejection comes to other artists as well, but those other artists, even in theatre, usually have not been taught the way actors have and so have to develop ways to deal with rejection on their own. The alternative is to take a path that leads away from a world filled with rejection.

We all want to be wanted and accepted. Sometimes it seems that we aren’t, or at least our work isn’t. Only the artist him/herself can decide when it’s no longer worth trying. But before you decide that continuing to pursue your artistic dreams isn’t worth the continued rejection, consider this:

As evidenced by these examples, those who connect the artist to the audience are sometimes lacking in foresight, but we still have to deal with their rejection. We may, like Shaw, who became first a critic, then a playwright, change our course slightly. Or, if the work is important to us, we will keep making it and putting it out there, submitting it to the next agent, publisher, producer, juried show, gallery, and the next and the next.

The bottom line is if we want to be artists, we will experience rejection. Therefore, we need to grow thick skins and maintain enough confidence to keep going. Rejection is, after all, part of the gig.

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Best of…

Monday, 13. January 2014 0:30 | Author:

With the beginning of the year come the inevitable superlative lists of the year past which include lots of things, including the arts. You can find lists of the highest paid musicians, the highest paid visual artists, the most paid for an art work, the best movies, the best songs (in all categories), the best photographs, the best new whatever or whomever. Americans, at least, seem obsessed with “best-of’s.” There are even best of best of lists.

And, of course, most of these lists will evaporate just like New Year’s resolutions and mean about as much. Some will have impact, e.g. when a list of best movies is tied to this or that award, it means more money for the investors and perhaps a larger paycheck for the star on his/her next project. And some will even provide the winner with a plaque or trophy to display.

The impulse to look back and evaluate a past block of time is understandable. What is troubling about at least some of the lists that have been recently published, however, is the “small print,” or more accurately, the invisible print. Some organizations are up-front about what the rules and criteria are. The Academy Awards, for example, have page after page on rules and eligibility. The Golden Globe Awards do not seem as transparent, given the controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s ineligibility this year for her performance in Spike Jonze’s Her.

Many lists come with no apparent rules at all, but it doesn’t take long to discover the bias of the compiler. For instance, many “best photographs of the year” lists have crossed my newsreader screen in the last week and a half. Although some are travel images, most of them are really “best photojournalism of 2013” lists. The notable exception is Rangefinder Magazine, where the editors compiled several lists, and often organized those lists into categories.

There is certainly nothing wrong with photojournalism; it has produced some of the most memorable images ever made. What is wrong, at least in my mind, is to suggest, even by implication, that photojournalism comprises the totality of excellent photography created within a 12-month span.

Aside from the need to summarize the past, I suspect that the impulse to incorporate art works into lists are bragging rights—the ability to be able to claim that the compiler was the first to recognize the worth of a work that becomes iconic at some future date. But some of the most iconic works of art didn’t receive the prizes they were up for. Case in point: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did not win the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The lack of the award did not prevent the play from being one of the best of the twentieth century.

It is certainly a good feeling to appear on a list of winners, whether it is the list of those accepted to a juried show, or the list of those who won an award of some sort or a list of the best whatevers of whatever year.  But it’s not why we do what we do. It is doubtful that Scarlett Johansson took the role in her, thinking she might get a Golden Globe, just as it’s a stretch to believe that Albee sat down to write Virginia Woolf with a Pulitzer in mind. We make our art to say what we have to say in the best way we know how to say it using the best tools we have. Sometimes we make it onto a list; mostly we don’t. That’s just fine.

Category:Criticism, Photography | Comment (0)

The Importance of Venue

Sunday, 5. January 2014 23:56 | Author:

In a recent blog, Seth Godin makes the point that if we think we are supposed to like something, we probably will. He uses the examples of laughing more at a comedy club, liking the food better at fancy restaurants, and feeling like we have a bargain if we buy it at an outlet store. In other words, the venue influences the perceived value of the experience.

Reinforcing this idea is the Washington Post experiment instigated by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Gene Weingarten and implemented by Grammy Award-winning violinist and conductor Joshua Bell. Bell, lightly disguised, played as a street performer for 45 minutes at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC on January 12, 2007. Only seven people stopped to listen and he collected a total of $32.17. Earlier the same week, he had played the same concert to a sold-out $100-per-seat house.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet once compared New York and Chicago theatre audiences in what seems to be a comment on the same phenomenon, “In Chicago, we just presume that the best theatre is going to be in somebody’s garage.”

This about more than the environment in which an art work exists, it is about the perception of value (the qualitative portion of audience expectation) based strictly on venue. Because of the prices we pay, and the location of the theatres, we expect New York theatre to be the best in the world, and consequently we like it more. As we move away from Manhattan, our expectations shrink and we expect to like what we see less; we are hardly ever disappointed. We look at the environment and adjust our expectations. Is it a union house? Are the actors professional? Are they students? Whether consciously or unconsciously, we modify our expectations according to the venue. We expect less and like it less.

This way of thinking does not apply only to theatre. We base our expectation of the quality of any art on the venue and the location of the venue. So when we walk into the hole-in-the-wall club in Tennessee, we do not expect to hear world class music.  When we visit an outdoor art fair in Texas, we do not anticipate seeing mature, masterful work. We do not really expect world-class anything outside of the “proper” context.

Like many of the passersby in the Washington Post experiment, many of us are so locked into the idea of how we are supposed to respond (according to location and situation) that we cannot hear the actual quality of the music or see the real quality of the art.

An earlier installment of this blog, “Context Matters” said, “The ambiance surrounding works of art, seeps into the work, and fuses with it. It impacts the work and cannot do otherwise. It’s part of the art transaction that cannot be avoided. The trick then is to be able to mentally decontextualize the work, so that you can be sure that you are actually appreciating the piece, not the context in which you find it.” Although certainly a desirable ideal, the more I learn, the less sure I am that decontextualization is a real possibility—at least for most people.

And although we know very well that quality is not related to venue, as artists we need to be aware of this phenomenon and realize that where we show our work does indeed matter to the majority of our audience. We may not like it, but we had better learn to deal with it.

Category:Audience, Presentation | Comments (1)

Where Are You Going?

Monday, 30. December 2013 0:14 | Author:

Last week’s post included the sentence, “Few of us end where we were aiming when we set out, and we may find that we’re really glad that we learned to sing somewhere along the way.” Since writing that, I’ve thought about it and decided that maybe it deserves some more discussion.

The fact is that most of us do not end where we were aiming when we set out. This is an idea that can be taken at least two different ways, both of which are, I think, valid. In one sense we do not end at the target we set when we set out on our life or professional journey. In another sense, the work that we create often does not end where we planned for it to go.

In both cases, many of us end up at a place that is far superior to our original target.

The process of making art requires that we leave room for discovery and serendipity as we follow where the process takes us. For example, writer Austin Kleon started making the trailer for his new book with all sorts of plans; however, he soon discovered that there was much to be eliminated and even more to be modified. He says, “I like the idea to change as I’m working.Even if you have to throw half your work out, it’ll lead you to something better.….Let your “mistakes” during the process actually feed back into the idea. Absorb the mistakes into the piece.” The work that results from such an approach has a tendency to be more organic than work that is totally and completely preplanned.

An approach such as Kleon’s, however, does not mean that planning should be dismissed. Many artists, Kleon included, begin with a very firm plan in mind. The trick is to be adaptable and to allow ourselves to be open to new ideas and pathways as they arise.

This is true of our careers as well. The blog Brain Pickings quotes Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbs: “The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.

Again, planning is not to be dismissed. My constant advice to students is for them to decide where they are going. Of course, like almost everyone else, the vast majority will end up somewhere different, but the selection of a target and the movement toward it is hugely important. Otherwise, they have a tendency to go nowhere, in almost every sense of the phrase. Once a goal is targeted, movement starts, and those detours that Watterson mentions happen along the way. Like the accidents in making art, they often lead to more and better opportunities for satisfying work.

Some people do end up where they started to go, and good for them—so long as the work is satisfying. Most of us, however, end in a very different place than the one we imagined when we first started out. Again, the test is not whether we got to our original target, but whether where we got to is fulfilling.

Likewise, if the art that we make is exactly what we imagined when we started, good for us. If, however, we incorporate mistakes and let he idea change as we proceed, then good for us as well. What matters, after all, whether in our professional journey or in making art, is not the initial impetus or whether we stayed on track, but what the journey taught us. It’s called process, and it takes us where it will. We can only benefit.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)