Post from October, 2020

A Process of Discovery

Monday, 26. October 2020 0:07

Austin Kleon’s blog post for October 15 is entitled “Art takes you where it wants you to go,” which is a paraphrase of a statement by 93-year-old quilt artist Laverne Brackens.  Kleon goes on to quote other artists:  textile artist and print maker Anni Albers, poet Ciaran Carson, quilt artist Bisa Butler. All say pretty much the same thing, as does Kleon himself. The materials lead the artist, not the other way around.  If you examine the writings of other artists you will find much the same idea repeated over and over.  And it doesn’t matter much which materials an artist is working with.

For example, sculptors in wood or stone must work with the grain of the material if they are not to risk destroying the piece before it is realized. Naturally, working with the grain will require some changes be made in the finished product, so the resultant work is not so much a work of the sculptor’s imagination as it is a cooperative effort of the sculptor and the material.

Actors also often bend to the material. Upon first reading, they may think they know the character and exactly how the lines need to be delivered. However, once those actors delve into serious script analysis and exchange dialog with their colleagues, new readings emerge; the character morphs because of the influences that were not apparent in the first reading. It’s called character “development’ for a reason, and the actor often ends up with a performance that is very different from the one they envisioned when they first picked up the script.

Filmmakers and stage directors have a similar situation. The actors who are cast determine which way a character will go, which, in turn, influences which way the film itself will go. For example, Rebecca Onion writing for points out that by casting two very attractive people who are nearly the same age as leads, the producers of the new Rebecca on Netflix have dramatically altered the dynamic between the two main characters from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, and with that single change have altered the meaning and substance of the artifact.  Another issue in film and stage is that the chemistry that does or does not develop among the actors as they work can also influence the outcome of the final product. A good director will often get what they want in terms of a final artifact, but they may have to arrive at it a much different way than they planned.

And of course we are all familiar with Bob Ross’ “happy accidents” in painting. Painters not only have to work with accidents, happy and otherwise, but must deal with the viscosity of the paint, with the surface of the substrate, not to mention humidity and temperature—and the condition of the brushes and knives. So there are a number of factors that can influence the outcome as well as the artist’s intention.

Almost all photographers will acknowledge the contribution of a good model to the outcome of a shoot. Sometimes, the photographer not only gets what they want but many other excellent images as well—all because of the ideas that the model brings to the shoot. Sometimes the best images are completely unexpected and are the direct result of collaboration between model and photographer.

Writers, whether they are poets, writers of fiction, or non-fiction authors consistently talk about how they think they know where they are going, but the words lead them in a different direction, and the stories, and essays and articles turn out differently than their creators originally imagined. The written work becomes organic and takes on a life of its own. The writer sometimes just keeps putting words down to find out where they are going.

Most artists, regardless of the medium in which they work, agree that when the artist listens to the material, the results are far better than when the writer tries to force their will on the material. That’s because the creative process is not what many people think it is; rather, the creative process is really a process of discovery.

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The Zoom Show

Sunday, 11. October 2020 22:51

We just closed our first ever virtual production, which, because we do not have the resources of SNL, we did it with Zoom. Here are some things we learned:

  1. Familiar terminology has different meanings—or no meanings. The term “closed” above indicates that the last streaming of the performance is over. There really is no final performance in the new world. “Opening” is similar, in that the actors are home, watching themselves in a streaming show, a luxury never afforded in a live theatre situation.
  2. The Zoom format is a workable format for creating a virtual production. We did a great deal of research and a whole lot of experimenting and discovered that there are a number of tools and switches and controls in Zoom that allow the director, via the Zoom operator, to control the arrangement of actors on the screen, to allow off-stage voices, and to determine what the audience sees and hears. Zoom managed well does not require that every show look like the opening of “The Brady Bunch.”
  3. Material must be chosen carefully. Unlike the empty stage which will accept, and conform itself to virtually any material, the Zoom format, for all of its flexibility, does have some limitations, which, in turn, limit what sort of material will play well and what will not. The fact that each actor is isolated in their own window is the most basic limitation. Some gimmicks, like passing a prop from window to window, are possible, but that’s very much the extent of window interaction.
  4. There are significant differences for actors. Virtual production is different from both film and stage. The actor receives information from some portion of the screen, but must respond to the little pinhole of a camera above that screen. And the actors are close enough to the camera that eye movements are perfectly visible to anyone  watching. And each actor may be seeing a different thing on their screen. And there is no audience feedback, which is almost incomprehensible to the stage actor, who very often builds their performance based on audience response.
  5. There are significant differences for directors. The director has to think cinematically, but within the restrictions of the form. Instead of blocking, they have to deal with the order of actors on the screen and with who is visible when and who disappears when. It’s a very different sort of thinking for either a stage or film director.
  6. Set design is completely different. The design and execution are virtual and, of course has to be backed with green screens in situations which keep the actors safe. Then there is the problem of making an individual background for each actor and then figuring out how those backgrounds will match when put beside each other on the screen.
  7. There are significant differences for all the staff. The stage manager’s work is very different. Light cues are minimal. There is now a Zoom operator who is the person who is actually determining the looks and is in control of the recording—if there is one. As noted, the audience is virtual, which changes the function of the front-of-house operation and the box office.
  8. What you see is not always what you get. Zoom has its own recording rules. For example, character names disappear on the recording unless you tell Zoom to record them. Sometimes ghosts of a just-exited character appear unbidden, and weren’t seen until the recording was viewed.
  9. Murphy’s Law is alive and well and does exactly what it says it will. Because of the newness of the medium and the multiple layers of technology, there are hundreds of things that can and do go wrong, many of which were never before encountered in a play production. Fixing one problem does not mean that there is not another waiting just around the corner. Backing up work is a necessity.
  10. It’s doable. It’s not easy. But even with all the problems, it is possible to mount a virtual production that is stands up dramatically and has solid production values.

This is not a complete list, of course, but will suffice to outline the major areas. Within each area, we learned hundreds of things, some large and some small, but all significant, because even the tiniest thing matters to the success of such a production.

And we’ll do it again. Using what we’ve learned but anticipating new challenges, we are now in production for our second attempt at this new format—with a very different show this time. We, of course, are both scared and excited.

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