Post from September, 2011

The Creative Process of Others – Can It Be Useful?

Sunday, 25. September 2011 23:51

The other day I had lunch with an actress who had just come from an audition with an internationally renowned playwright. It had gone well and she was, needless to say, excited. We talked about the meeting, what it meant to her, what it might mean to her future. She, at one point said, “I’d like to ask him how he gets from idea to paper; I’d like to know what his process is.” The first thing I thought, but did not say, was “what would be the point of that? Your procedure and his can have nothing in common, since he is a playwright and you an actor. Knowing his process might be interesting but it has no real application, and besides, he probably doesn’t know how he does it.” But then I gave the matter some more thought.

My original response was grounded in the notion that every artist, no matter what medium, has a very unique individual process. Additionally, the process which works for one type of project will not work for another. I know that my process in directing a play is far different from my process for writing, which is, in turn, far different from the process used in creating a photographic image. Actually, the process used in photography, for me at least, varies with the type of photography and image that is being created; likewise the playmaking process morphs depending upon the work being staged and the actors with whom I’m working.

And the process is so internalized as to be nearly impossible to tease out. Most of us work on what is really a subconscious level when we are creating, but there are still conscious elements that influence the paths we choose in creativity. If you talk with an artist about his/her process, the response is often something like, “I paint from 9 til noon, have a little lunch, and then paint another two hours,” or “I get up at four and write for three hours before I go to work.” You get descriptions of the structure or pattern that surrounds the actual process. Even these patterns seem to be highly individual; what works for one person won’t work at all for another.

And still, we are talking only about approach and organization: what do we do first, second, so forth. The real processes by which we create are mysterious not only to others, but to ourselves as well. We may know that if we write for so long every day, we are more productive than if we don’t. We may know that if we “trust our instincts and don’t overthink,” the photograph will be better. We may know that if we let the canvas sit and do nothing with it for a while we will have fresh eyes with which to edit it. We may know what we need to do to get ourselves into flow. Beyond that, we know very little.

Since the essence of art is to see possibilities and connections and to express them, we might, by studying others’ procedures, learn something that will allow us clearer expression or that opens a new area of thought, which in turn allows our work to develop in a different direction. I am not at all suggesting that we copy others’ procedures, but we may find something in them that triggers an idea or leads to new understanding either in terms of technique or content.

So perhaps knowing an award-winning playwright’s processes would be useful. Perhaps such knowledge might cause us to recognize potential that had, heretofore, remained untapped. Whether useful or not, it would not hurt us, and, if nothing else, could be quite interesting.

While I have thought and written about the creative artistic process before, I don’t think that I have ever, until this discussion, thought of others’ artistic processes as anything other than intellectual curiosities. Now I am beginning to think that a consideration of the way others accomplish their artistic goals may be quite useful to the working artist.


Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (4) | Author:

Make It Fresh and New and Wonderful

Sunday, 18. September 2011 23:51

Last week in talking to an actress who was about to do a very important audition, I offhandedly advised her to make her work “fresh and new and wonderful.”  Many auditions are anything but fresh and new and wonderful; many are stale and tired and recycled. Auditors know within the first fifteen seconds that this will not be the audition that they had hoped to see, and will move on to someone else.

While auditioning is a very strange and difficult activity for both the actor and the auditor and somewhat removed from the actual art and craft of creating characters and making shows, it occurs to me that the same advice can apply to both of those endeavors as well. As a matter of fact, the same advice can apply to any artistic endeavor. Art should be fresh and new and wonderful, whether it is acting, directing, painting, photography, design, dance, writing, or film.

Too often we who create simply repeat what has worked for us in the past, with some occasional minor variations that make this piece just a little different. There are a variety of reasons for this: we have too much to do; we are comfortable with the thing that we continue to do; we are lazy. There are two other reasons that stand out as the most-cited in this regard. One is the idea that it worked before so it should again. This we see constantly in American movies, where success often leads to repetition and reproduction. The second is branding. While touted as a good thing, branding can often stifle creativity because we believe that if we vary too much from what we have done before we will confuse our brand in the eyes of the market.

A quick look at Apple should dispel this notion. Apple manages with each new product to produce something that is new and fresh and wonderful. Not every iteration of every  product is radically different from the one that has gone before, but there is enough of a change that many will perceive the new version as new and fresh and wonderful indeed, and the company will make that much more money.

We can manage our art the same way. Our brand does not have to be based on producing exactly the same thing all the time. It is probably well if there are significant stylistic similarities and perhaps other similarities as well, but beyond that, I am convinced that our art will thrive only if we manage to produce things that are fresh and new and wonderful in the eyes of our audience. Otherwise, our audience responds much as the auditor at a hack audition. He/she may sit silently disappointed until the audition time is expired, or, more likely, cut off the offending actor. Life is too short to listen to bad auditions, and life is far too short to put up with mediocre art, which echoes prior mediocre art, which, in turn, may echo a good idea, but an old one. By being sure that each new work is original and fresh, we can not only solidify but expand our brands.

After all this discussion, I have decided to take my own advice for once (something which many of us find difficult). I have resolved to examine each new project I undertake to be sure that I am meeting the test of making it new and fresh and wonderful. You may want to do the same.



Category:Audience, Creativity, Originality, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

Fit the Form to the Content

Monday, 12. September 2011 0:14

Recently, I got new business cards for the photography part of my life, replacing the rather stodgy ones I had previously used. On one side is the requisite contact information; on the other is a photograph, or, more accurately, a part of a photograph. Actually, there are several different parts of different photographs in the card collection, so each card gives the impression of being unique. They are interesting and different and varied; I like them.

These new cards are “minicards” that are not only smaller but do not have the same height/width ratio as “normal” business cards. So I selected pieces of images that I have been working on to fit the format. The result is a set of unique images in a unique format.

Just as with the images for these cards, I often discover as I work on images that the original camera frame is not the correct boundary for the image, so I sometimes spend a good deal of time searching for the correct format. And I find that it is not the same for all images, even those in the same series. The point of all of this is that the form has to have an integral connection to the content. You can’t just pour the content into pre-existing forms and expect it to work.

This notion of matching form to content is not new and certainly not unique to me. War and Peace was rewritten after it had been originally published, with first three revised volumes appearing in 1867 and the remaining three published one at a time over the next two years. The original form did not work. The final form was and is intimidating to many readers. According to Writer’s Almanac,

Tolstoy did not think of his new book as a novel. He published an article in 1868, even before the final parts of book had come out, called “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace.” In the article, he wrote: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.

And that’s it: the true marriage of from and content is what the artist wants and is able to express in the form in which it is expressed. And sometimes you have to make up the form, if one does not exist, to say what you need and want to say.

It’s the same reason that artists will sometimes switch media. They find that their “old” medium simply does not allow them to communicate what they now wish to communicate. So they find a medium, a “form” if you will, that does. And it may change numerous times over the career of an artist. August Strindberg, for example, wrote plays in a great variety of styles, and fiction, and non-fiction with an equally great variation in subject matter. He was also a painter and photographer.

Strindberg was trying to use the appropriate form and format for the content—for each project. It’s part of the art, but not an easy thing—we are often bound by what we did on the last project, what we think is expected of us, what we think will sell. It’s easier to work within existing constraints, but is the result better art?

If we are to continue to grow as artists, then we must seek out new forms and formats for our work—even if we have to start with new business cards.


Category:Communication, Creativity, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

Changing the Lights – Does Minutiae Make the Art?

Monday, 5. September 2011 0:15

In graduate school I had a professor who, trying to impress upon us the importance of lighting, told us repeatedly that you could make an audience cry simply by changing the lights.  He never demonstrated this phenomenon, but he held that it was true in the strongest possible terms.  We thought, or at least I thought, it was an exaggeration at best.

Then later I was working on the light crew of a musical and there was a two-beat sequence in act one that went, punch line/blackout, and the audience laughed. (And how fast you read that phrase was about the timing on it.) One night, someone slipped and we were late on the cue, so it went, punch line/beat/blackout, and the audience laughed. So the next night we tried punch line/beat, beat/blackout, and the audience laughed. We (the portion of the light crew that manned the dimmer racks—this was a long time ago) observed that the audience did not laugh until the lights went out, which gave rise to all sorts of theories and ideas and wonderings.

So we decided to play with it—only within certain limits, lest we screw up the show and/or incur the wrath of the stage manager, or worse, one of the many stars in this vehicle, although most of the real prima donnas were in act two. And what we discovered over the next few nights was that the audience did not, would not laugh until the lights went out. Not really a scientific test, but enough to convince us.

Of course, we didn’t know what to do with the information. The study was not scientific enough to generate a paper. It was difficult to talk about without acknowledging that we had knowingly jacked with the timing of the show, which none of us wanted to admit. Certainly, the laugh was set up by the actor and the lines, but the trigger was the blackout. A blackout, nothing more, and, regardless of the timing, it triggered the laugh. It amazed me, amazed all of us, I think.

We theatre types pretend we know how to do comedy; we have all read comic theory; we have had practical experience with audiences, and so we have some idea. But this little long-ago experiment taught me how little we know about what actually triggers a laugh. And by extension, it taught me how little we know about what in a performance triggers any reaction. It could be as simple as a blackout, or the timing of a reading, or—in an intimate theatre situation— the quarter-inch movement of an eyebrow. Then by further extension, I began to wonder about other triggers. What is the thing that triggers the choked-back sob in the audience; what is the thing that actually causes a viewer to have a fear reaction?  What tiny thing is the thing that makes the painting be more than just oil on canvas, what curve or angle makes the sculpture really impact spectator, what detail makes the photograph reach out and touch the viewer, what tiny movement makes the dance have real meaning for an audience member, what word choice causes the reader of a poem to tear?

Perhaps it’s the entire composition: the combination of line and form and texture and all of those elements that we learned in art class or design class. But given all that, there is still there is some factor that separates those art works that really impact us, that make us laugh, or cry, or think, or remember from all the others. And there is something that actually triggers those responses.

Maybe my professor, Gordon Pearlman, was right; he did, after all, go on to become one of the giants of stage lighting control. Maybe it is something as simple as changing the lights.  Or maybe, changing the light is not nearly as simple as it seems.



Category:Audience, Presentation, Theatre | Comments (2) | Author: