Post from September, 2013

Ruts and Routines

Monday, 30. September 2013 0:28

Routine is both comfortable and comforting. There is security in knowing that you will do the same things in the same order and for more-or-less the same duration every work-day. There is reassurance in knowing that this weekend will follow a pattern much like last weekend and very much like next weekend. Routine makes everything stable.

Many of us have a tendency to fall easily into routines. One of the strengths of the routine is that we don’t have to think about it. No concerns about what to do next—we look at the clock or the calendar and we know. If it’s the right time and day to work on our art, we do that. If it’s time to eat, we do that. And so on. I rather like routines for all of those reasons mentioned, but I have a friend who reminds me that doing things always the same means not that I’m in a routine, but in a rut.

But then, ruts are comforting too, and ruts are really comfortable, and easy. You really have to think about nothing. Just put the wheels into the grooves in the road and you don’t even have to steer. And since you are a creature of habit, you don’t have to think about speed either—you’ll go along at the same tempo you used the last time you went this way.

We all pretty much agree that ruts are bad, but a rut is simply a routine that’s gone on long enough to make it a practiced thing without any conscious alternatives. It’s that no conscious alternatives thing that’s not so good. That prevents us from seeing new possibilities, from exploring other methods, from developing new ways of thinking. It’s comfortable, and, because it amounts to autopilot, we tell ourselves, it leaves us more time for creativity.

Or does it? I have been working on a very large project for weeks now. Because I’ve learned to take my own advice, I work on it every day. This has resulted in plodding along, working every evening—sometimes just a little; other times for a longer period. Unfortunately, I am in the not-so-creative, preparatory part of the project. It’s work. I slogged onward, unknowingly losing interest every day. Then the deadline of another project suddenly interfered, forcing me to alter my routine. The results were wonderful! The second project got finished on time, and that energized me so I was able to go back to the larger project with fresh eyes. Suddenly I began to see possibilities that had been invisible before.

The obvious lesson is to avoid ruts, and perhaps even routines. Unfortunately, the latter may not be possible, particularly for those who have day jobs or other obligations. Perhaps a better alternative would be to change our approach: instead of telling ourselves that we should work at our art every day or week or whatever, perhaps we should, in addition, set goals. For example, instead of writing for a set time every day, Stephen King writes 2000 words; he does not stop until he has reached his goal. Some days that takes a rather short amount of time; others require a longer period. Another thing we can learn from observing King is that he gives his work a high priority, meaning that he may have to have adjust some other aspect of his life when things are moving slowly. Many of us do it the other way around, and short our artistic work when life intervenes.

Like many artists previously discussed here, I am a great believer in discipline.  However, when discipline becomes a routine which then develops into a rut, we must find a way to break out of that rut and renew ourselves. Our work will only benefit.

Category:Creativity, Productivity | Comment (0) | Author:

Job Insecurity and Creativity

Sunday, 22. September 2013 23:47

Earlier this month, British playwright Simon Stephens, speaking at a conference on new writing, said that because of their job insecurity, actors are being “stifled” by fear of unemployment. Specifically he said, “They would have one eye on the director, to make sure they don’t offend them, one eye on the writer, to make sure they seduce and tantalise them so they maybe might want to write something for them, and one eye on the artistic director to let them know they are not a difficult person to have around the theatre….That can be really stifling and can stifle bravery in acting performance.”

Lyn Gardner, writing in The Guardian, takes issue and suggests that job insecurity is what is driving “brave and creative performances.” Gardner never explains her reasons for this suggestion, but goes on to explain that the condition is not unique to actors and finally state that “while the freelance way of life does not suit anyone, uncertainty can be a genuine spur to creativity, rather than stifling risk.”

While I cannot completely agree that freelancing suits no one or that uncertainty spurs creativity, I must agree with Gardner that job insecurity is a fact of life for the professional performer. She goes on to say job insecurity is a fact not just for actors, but for any freelance professional, including playwrights, directors, journalists and accountants.  I have to agree with that as well, and would note that anyone who goes into any of the arts endures the same employment insecurity, and perhaps worse than some theatre professionals. In theatre, opera, and dance, at least, some professionals are members of repertory companies and ensemble companies, which offer employment security for at least a season. (Although very few of those professionals would presume that it is a certainty that there will be a contract waiting for them next season.)

Other types of artists have no such havens. They produce work, show it, sometimes sell it and then move on to the next project. Some, who have representation, have fewer interruptions, but still work from project to project, knowing that there are no guarantees, there are no assured sales—unless they accept commissions, and even then the commission may evaporate before the piece is finished and the sale finalized.

This is the nature of the arts business. Anyone who has entertained a career in any of the arts, should have, before embarking on such a journey, become aware that employment security was not part of the deal. That insecurity cannot be ruled out as an influencer; there are always those who will take the safe road, who will produce what they think the audience wants in the hopes of achieving some sort of stability much the way that Stephens details.

But then there are the others, the ones who want to make the best art they can and know that in order to do that, risks must be taken—whether it imperils security or not. If you go to art shows or the theatre or the ballet or the opera, you know who those people are; their work shows it. They are the ones in front of whose work you linger, the ones you come back to for a second or third look; they are the ones whose performances you want to sit through again and discuss afterward and think about after you have gone home.

The question is: which kind of artist are you?

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

Art is Not Just a Matter of Preference

Sunday, 15. September 2013 23:44

When I was an undergraduate, I had an English professor who said that the accomplished student of literature should be able to read a poem and separate the quality of the work and whether or not it was personally appealing. The implications, of course, were that not all poetry is created equal and that liking something has nothing to do with whether it is good or not.

This has not been a popular position in the postmodern world, where all work is pretty much equal. And although postmodernism is, according to some, dead, it left a legacy. Daniel C. Dennett has said, “Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”

And as elevated as the egalitarianism of postmodernism sounds, most of us who work in the arts know that it simply isn’t true. There is good acting and bad acting, good directing and not-so-good directing, good writing and bad writing. There are, in fact, qualitative differences in the performing arts. And other arts are no different. Given that, the problem is articulating what constitutes good art and less good art, and that, in turn, requires that we be able to distinguish art from non-art.

Although many have attempted this, novelist Leo Tolstoy is one of the few who not only distinguished art from non-art, but articulated the conditions which determine the qualitative levels of art. Tolstoy collected his views in a book called What is Art? It is not an easy read. Fortunately, Maria Popova has summarized and presented Tolstoy’s ideas in a recent posting to Brain Pickings. Essentially, Tolstoy said that art is a union between the artist and viewer or receiver of the art that allows the receiver to feel and experience the feelings and experiences that the artist put into the work. Additionally, this union works not only in one era, but across time and cultures. He says that what distinguishes real art is the presence of this infectiousness.

He goes on to say that the stronger the infection, the better the art, and that the degree of quality is dependent on three conditions:

  1. The individuality of the feeling being transmitted. (More is better.)
  2. The clarity of the expression. (Clearer is better.)
  3. And the sincerity of the artist. (Sincere is better.) This is the most important condition.

Sincerity in Tolstoy’s view is what gives art it’s power and is the source of its infectiousness: “The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.”

Whether or not we fully agree with Tolstoy, or even understand him, most of us instinctively know that all art is not created equal. There is excellent work and there is crap, and there are all sorts of levels in between. Most of us know that. It’s time that we quit pretending that it’s all about individual expression and acknowledge that Tolstoy has a point. Art is not just a matter of preference.

Category:Aesthetics, Quality | Comments (1) | Author:

On Taking Your Own Advice

Monday, 9. September 2013 0:00

When you are in the teaching/mentoring business, you tailor the advice that you give to each individual because each individual has his/her own wants and needs and desires and goals. What will work for one won’t work for another. But then you lead a workshop or write a blog and suddenly you’re giving advice that by the nature of the delivery has to be general.

Sooner or later, you look at what you have said in that general forum and wonder why you have never taken your own advice—well, all of it. Obviously you believe it if you passed it along to others. Why aren’t you doing it? The answer, of course, it that you didn’t think to. This is advice for others. That’s where your focus is. It’s the same as the old story about the plumber who never fixes his own faucet—he’s too busy fixing others people’s faucets.

So you decide maybe you should try to take your own advice. If it’s the path you advise others to follow, perhaps you should attempt it yourself. And what you discover is a number of thing:

  • Some of your suggestions don’t work. You find that the ideas you have been giving others just don’t accomplish what you thought they did. The only honest response is to drop this line of advice. But had you not tried it, you never would have known.
  • Some of your advice needs tweaking. Your practice might not exactly match your advice for a variety of reasons. This means that what you are saying might require a little tweaking to bring it into alignment with what you are doing, or what you are doing might require a little tweaking to bring it into alignment with what you are teaching. Either way, it’s an easy fix.
  • Some of what you are advocating needs adjustment. When you try to implement it, it doesn’t work quite the way you had thought that it might. And it turns out that what you are advising needs more than tweaking; it needs revising if it is to have any application in the real world.
  • Some of what you are suggesting to others is just difficult. Perhaps you did not know just how difficult it was until you tried it. And that means that you have to temper your advice with warnings about the complications the student is likely to encounter. For example, I have long advised actors, indeed, all artists to live in the moment, but unless you are in the midst of flow, this is a very difficult thing to do. When I tried to do what I had advised, I found it to be one of the most challenging things I had ever attempted; it’s a goal that one has to work on for perhaps years and still may not be able to master all the time and in all instances. But it is certainly worth the attempt. So now this topic always includes difficulty warnings.
  • Sometimes you find that the advice that you are dispensing is solid. It works, and it makes you work or your life better. Once you find out how well this particular piece of advice works, you wonder why you hadn’t tried it before.

Taking your own advice is not easy. For some reason we have a blind spot when it comes to applying our own counsel. But once we have seen it, applied it, understood the outcomes, we can learn from it. And because we learn, we can become better not only as teacher/mentors, but perhaps as an artists as well.

Category:Creativity, Productivity | Comments (1) | Author:

When You Steal…

Monday, 2. September 2013 0:25

Artists steal. It’s well documented. It’s a topic that has come up a couple of times before (here and here). But it occurs to me that some may not know exactly how to steal—artistically speaking, so here are some guidelines.

  1. Only steal things that are useful. One of the side effects of meeting new artists, or new people in general is that you are introduced to ideas, approaches, and working methods different from your own. That can be both invigorating and confusing. More importantly, it can cause you to re-evaluate your own approaches and methods. Some people adopt every new thing they find, only to discover later that it is not useful to them. Just because it’s new and appealing and available doesn’t make it necessarily worth taking.
  2. Don’t be afraid to cherry pick. Just as important as re-evaluating your own methods is the necessity for evaluating those new ideas before you appropriate them. Over the last couple of years, for example, I have had the opportunity to observe several other stage directors working. In a number of cases, I observed techniques and approaches that I could never embrace. But occasionally, I encountered an idea that is so good I wonder why I had not thought of it myself. (There’ a whole blog in that question.) Choose carefully what to steal.
  3. Take care in implementation. Once you have found something worth stealing, you have to figure out how to implement it. Do you just apply it wholesale? If you get a new procedure, what do you do with your old procedures–throw them out, rearrange, modify? And if you do any of those things, what does that do to your rhythm and flow? Because, no matter now good an idea may be, if adopting it throws you off your game, it’s not practical to adopt it. You may also discover surprises as you implement new procedures. Consider all the consequences before you adopt new processes.
  4. Adapt what you take. Unless you are completely dissatisfied with your present procedures and approaches, adapt the new ideas. That way you can build a better method, approach, procedure for yourself. An example: the other evening, I walked into a rehearsal and saw the stage manager taking notes on an iPad using a full-sized portable keyboard. What a great idea! But before I ordered one, I had to ask myself if I would really carry around a full-size keyboard, even if it was super-thin and super lightweight. No. Too cumbersome for me. But the idea was too good to let go—adaptation was required; it turns out that several manufacturers make iPad cases with built-in keyboards. They aren’t full-sized, but, according to their users, they are far superior to typing on a touch screen. This would be a far better solution for me, since I have no problem carrying around an iPad.
  5. Keep your good stuff. Some will completely throw out what they are doing and how they are doing it when they discover something new. This sometimes happens, for instance, when actors discover Sanford Meisner; they completely discard their former training and replace it with the Meisner technique. Other actors add Meisner’s ideas onto the base they have already built, then add features from multiple philosophies to create their own unique approaches. If something is working for you, don’t throw it away. Add to it.
  6. Remember where you’re going. When evaluating a new approach, consider your own goals and procedures. Are yours the same as the person’s you are stealing from? Will these new ideas allow you to achieve your own goals more easily? Or will they require that you modify your goals? And if they do, is modifying your goals something that you really want to do? Again, don’t throw out what you have just to accommodate untried appropriated ideas. Go back to step 4.

Stealing, you see, is not just a matter of seeing and taking. It requires a significant amount of evaluation and caution as well as care in implementation. When judiciously applied, it can, however, be one of the most useful skills that an artist can possess.

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