Post from November, 2013

Acting and Flow

Monday, 18. November 2013 0:56

Almost every acting coach I know teaches that to really do the work of acting properly, the actor must be in the moment. We watch young actors struggle first with the concept and then the practice. We watch them inch toward that goal, and if we are lucky we get to see flashes of it in the occasional performance. It is a difficult thing to do, since to do it, the actor has to undo years of training and practice in avoiding the present.

Actors are not the only artists who do their best work in the moment. A number of artists, when they are working, drift into the “eternal present,” which is normally called flow and which I have discussed before (here, here, and here). They begin work, and often without their knowledge, the world drifts away to be replaced by a moment-to-moment existence wherein the very best of creation happens. This is the way it usually happens to actors as well. They start a scene and get caught up in it and then they are creating in a way that they never have before.

During the last rehearsal of the week, I was privileged to witness an actor leap fully into the present moment and stay there, sustained for an entire scene—repeatedly.  That doesn’t sound like so much when you say it in words, but it was amazing to watch.

Run-through after run-through, the actor leapt into the present and stayed there until a stop was called. Anyone who has attended even two rehearsals can testify to the rarity of such an event.

The show that we are rehearsing is Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol by Tom Mula. For an actor it presents an unusual challenge, at least the way we are doing the show. This actor’s problem was to portray a character named Actor 2, who, in turn, portrays at least one other character, so he has to present at least two distinct characters to the audience, sometimes in the same speech. The transitions are nearly instantaneous and problematic to say the least, and adding depth to the second-level character is a further difficulty.

When this actor made the jump, those problems disappeared. He was alternately Marley and Actor 2 and Marley. Each distinct, with different postures, accents, attitudes. Although he stayed close to what had been rehearsed, he modified his blocking as necessary to achieve his objective in the scene. And he adapted his tone and approach to counter whatever the actor playing Scrooge invented as a response.

Suddenly we were not watching the actor that we knew; we were instead watching a persona named Actor 2 and a ghost named Marley alternate in the same body. The level of concentration, characterization, and intensity rivaled that of any seasoned professional at the top of his/her game. The whole room was completely silent. We (the stage manager, assistant stage manager, assistant director, and I) had seen that scene perhaps 10 to 12 times before, but we were all watching as though it were the first time. And we watched the first time—three times. Such is the power of the present moment. It was theatre as it is supposed to be. It was powerful enough that the stage manager cried, I discovered later.

The actor, since he was fully in the moment, remembered very little of what happened. As we talked after the rehearsal and he came back to himself, he began to remember more. My hope is that he will recall most of it over time, but that is not important. What is important is that he made the jump and discovered the value of flow and the immense boost to creativity that you can get only by working in the moment.

I could wish no more for any artist, be he/she sculptor, painter, photographer, dancer, writer.

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

The Real Function of the Audience

Sunday, 10. November 2013 23:33

A couple of weeks ago, I exhibited in an art show to which almost no one came. So we stood around and chatted and nibbled the refreshments and wondered why, not that that information would have really been useful. Then, last week I wrote a blog that seemed to have been read by no one, to judge from the lack of feedback.

In both instances, final outcomes were not what conditions would have predicted. An “I’ll-get-back-to-you” at the art show actually did, and purchased three pieces. And statistics showed that an average number of people read the blog; they just hadn’t seen a reason to comment on it or press a “like” button.

But these instances did make me think about the connection between our work and our audience. Theatre, the textbooks tell us, requires an audience—it’s an essential ingredient. At the other end of the spectrum are visual artists and bloggers, of course, who are pretty sure that no one is paying attention to anything they are doing. Does this then mean that the connection of the audience to art varies with the medium? Or is it that different artists approach the question of audience differently? Or is this one of those questions that requires that we look deeper?

A starting point might be to try to determine the relationship between creating art and the audience for that art: do we make art for the audience or some other reason? The answer probably depends on what sort of art we are making as well as how much we are willing to cater to audience taste.  Commercial art, for example, must please a certain audience; pop art usually caters to the perceived taste of the anticipated audience.

Regardless of what we are creating, at the most fundamental level, we make art for ourselves. Then consideration of the audience comes into play. How much consideration is given to the audience depends on the artist and the work. For example, those who work in performing arts take audience expectations into consideration—will the audience understand it? Will they like it? Will they hate it? And it’s not all trying to please the audience; in some cases, performing artists will push the envelope of audience acceptance for a variety of reasons. Playwright Harold Pinter has been noted to perceive the audience-play relationship as a battle.

On the other hand, those visual artists and writers mentioned earlier who don’t yet have an audience or who are completely removed from the audience seem to be completely unaffected by any potential viewers or readers. It’s not that they are more “pure;” it’s just that they are, for the present, unaware of how people might react to their work so they don’t think about it.

Like them, we continue to make art for ourselves, maybe considering the audience or maybe not. Then we abandon it to whatever audience is available. That audience responds to our work in some way or the other, and thus exists a conversation between the artist and the audience. It can be can be warm and friendly or, as in the case of Pinter, it can be adversarial, or it can be anything in between. And it can operate on an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual level or some combination. And it certainly can be and almost always is asynchronous. And in that conversation is the importance of art.

No matter why we set out to create art, no matter how much or how little consideration we give the audience during that process, the fact is that the audience functions as the other party in the conversation that is our art, and, for good or ill, completes our work.

Category:Audience | Comment (0) | Author:

They May Not Get It

Monday, 4. November 2013 0:29

Leaving the theatre last Saturday night, I overheard a man saying to the woman beside him, “You can explain it to me later.” And sure enough, in the restaurant next door to the theatre, there they were, very earnestly discussing the play with another couple, and perhaps offering the sought-after explanation. It set me to wondering how many other people in the theatre paid good money for an experience that they didn’t understand.

So I began to question others I knew who had seen the show. One person I talked to did not seem to have seen the same play I did, or at least if he did, he did not understand it in the same way that I did. One person seemed to have relied pretty heavily on program notes. Another was in the same situation as the man I overheard. A fourth had gone to an actor/director talk-back and so knew what they were attempting to do. Yet another saw what I saw and interpreted it much the way I did.

It was not an easy play; it was one of those with layer upon layer of reference and meaning, so I was quite interested to see the production. It did not disappoint. What was a bit discouraging though was the discovery that possibly a significant number of people in the audience really didn’t get it.

It probably should have come as no surprise. In talking to potential collectors about my photographic work, I have learned that they see what they see and don’t see what they don’t see, which many times has exactly nothing to do with what I put into the image. I never argue or point out or any errors in their thinking—I am, after all, in the business of cultivating collectors, not correcting their interpretations.

If your art has any degree of complexity at all, it will go over the heads of some of your audience. Expect it. If it is multi-layered or complex, some of it will likely get missed. They will get what they get and miss what they miss and there’s nothing you can do about it. They may even get stuff you didn’t know was in there. (The unconscious of the artist is a marvelous thing.)

Short of writing a 2500-word “program note” for each piece, you have no way to control the audience’s response, and even then you cannot guarantee it. You have to remember that each person comes to your work with his/her own background, training, prejudices, filters thorough which he/she experiences art and the world. They may even bring their baggage and project it onto your work. So every member of your audience is likely to have a different level of understanding.

Some artists may take this inability to comprehend on a part of the audience as an excuse to dumb down their work so that more people get it, and so improve their chances for more sales. Some will go to the other extreme, as did a director I knew who, upon reading a review that said that his play was difficult to understand, screamed, “Then they should come back and watch it until they understand it!”

Both reactions are certainly understandable, but not, in my estimation, the best choices. A better response to this situation is simply to recognize that it exists and continue but to put forward your best work, with all its layers, complexities, and ambiguities. Some will get it and some won’t. But you can hope that those who do will tell like-minded others and they in turn will tell others, and sooner or later, a tribe supporting your work will develop.

Category:Audience | Comment (0) | Author:

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