authors archive

Endings

Sunday, 14. August 2022 22:55

Having just retired from my long-time day job, endings are very much on my mind: not only the ending of jobs and projects, but the endings that we craft for our creations, and the comparisons between the two.

Even though we all know that all things must come to an end, there are sometimes emotions attached to arriving at the end of a project (or a job), particularly if that project has held some great interest for us or has been especially difficult or especially rewarding or both. We may be happy that it is over, or the opposite, but we are likely to have feelings one way or the other. And these feelings may be complex: we can be both sad and happy at the same time over the same termination. How long these feelings may last is another issue: they may last minutes, hours, days, or weeks even, depending on the project and how attached we were to it.

Crafting endings for our audience is a different thing altogether. Every created work that is experienced through time must have an ending, and unfortunately, there are as many types of endings as there are types of stories, songs, plays, poems, or stories.

And endings are difficult. Obviously, the primary reason for the ending is to bring the project to a satisfying conclusion. If pieces that I read and write are to serve as a guide, this is not as easy as it sounds, particularly with regard to short pieces. In fact, one of the last pieces I read came to an abrupt conclusion with a six-word sentence voicing a semi-philosophical statement; it was as though the author got to the end of what they had to say and simply tagged a short statement on the end so the reader wasn’t just left dangling. Authors are tasked with bringing the narrative to an end in a way that wraps up the piece and is aesthetically pleasing to the audience. Therein lies the problem. In my experience it is one of the more difficult tasks required of an author, particular if the work is not a formal academic paper of some sort.

Additionally, very often endings serve a twofold purpose: there may be loose ends to tie up. There may be a call to action of some kind to be embedded. There may be a sequel to set up. There may be any number of secondary purposes. This compounds the author’s problem in that they have to create an ending that satisfies the requirements of any ending plus insert the elements to accomplish the secondary goals as well, making the process all the more complicated.

And what do endings inside projects and the ending of projects have to do with each other? Simply that they both have to with wrapping things up and finding a stopping point, in one case for the author and in the other case for the audience. However, it should be clear that although they bear the same name, they are two entirely different processes, and have in common only that they come at the end of projects.

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When It Clicks

Sunday, 31. July 2022 20:40

Sitting in rehearsal on an evening not long ago, it clicked, and I suddenly understood that the show would indeed come together. In the world of educational theatre, that is never a foregone conclusion. I cannot explain what factors came together to provide me with this information, but it was suddenly there, and so I relaxed a little. This did not mean that there were not still things to do, but that bones of the show were solid, and the rest was more-or-less cleaning up.

Educational theatre is not the only area in which this phenomenon happens. I have known it to happen both in photography and in writing, although it happens in a slightly different fashion. In photography, it often happens with an edit. Most shoots result in a number of less-than-great photographs. Sometimes a re-crop or some other edit will move that image from uninspired to brilliant. And sometimes that comes as a surprise. The photographer expected the change to make the image better, but did not predict the degree of improvement the edit would make. Again, there may be other clean-up to be done, but the “click” has happened.

In writing it is much the same, and, as in photography, often happens in the editing stage. The author will rewrite a sentence, or insert a new sentence, or move a paragraph, and suddenly, “click.” The whole piece is better. Not that it was necessarily bad before, but now it, like the play, has demonstrated that the piece will come together, and will be far more successful that it would have done otherwise.

Perhaps it’s just a natural part of the creative process, but I know from experience that an artist can work to complete a piece and never really get an indication of whether it will be successful or not. It certainly does not mean that the piece will be bad, or ever mediocre; if fact, it may be great. It’s just that with some projects there is never a “click,” a prior indication that all of the elements have or soon will all come together in the best possible way.

Whether this happens in other media I cannot say, but I rather suspect that it does. Creativity is, after all, the process of making connections between sometimes disparate components, and in that process it is quite likely that a key piece will snap into place much like the key piece in a jigsaw puzzle, and “click.”

Please note that that “click” is simply a recognition that a piece is coming together. It is strictly from the creator’s point of view and has nothing to do with whether the piece will be well-received by its intended audience. It is probably just the conscious representation of the largely unconscious knowledge that all the components of the piece are in place and nothing has been left out—and nothing more. And though, as noted, it doesn’t happen with every project, it is comforting when it does happen. Making art is hard, and anything that tells us we are on the right track is welcome.

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The Trouble with Taste

Sunday, 17. July 2022 22:35

A friend of mine, a professor of art, did an interesting experiment several years ago.  He had a book called The New Erotic Photography, which is essentially 591 pages of images that the editors, Dian Hanson and Eric Kroll, considered erotic. Looking through the book, he decided that some of the images were truly erotic and some were not. So he asked individual students to go through the book and place a sticky note on the pages with images that the students thought were genuinely erotic. Regardless of questions of propriety or the informal, unscientific nature of the experiment, the results were very interesting. Students marked 53 images. Only 14 pages were marked twice, 8 three times, and 1 four times; none were marked more than four times. Admittedly, there is no way to know the total number of students who participated in the experiment or, because of the limited number of colors of the sticky notes, how many images each particular student tagged.

I have done similar experiments myself: one with a book of paintings and sculptures, and one with photographs. The results were similar to the experiment that the professor ran. Only a few of the images really impacted me, and even fewer were sufficiently compelling that I would have hung them on my walls had they been available.

So what is the point of these stories? Probably something that most of us already knew: the appeal of art is unique and individual. Of course, there is some agreement on what makes a good painting or sculpture or photograph; otherwise any discourse about these arts would be impossible, but beyond that, deciding which art actually “speaks” to us is a very personal thing, conditioned by any number of variables unique to each individual, including, but certainly not limited to our sense of aesthetics, our experiences, our prejudices, and our sense of self.

Is it any wonder then that artists have such a difficult time earning a living from their art? The task of creating work that will appeal to a sufficient number of individuals enough for them to spend money to own that work is daunting at best and nearly impossible at worst—unless, of course, one is doing commissioned work. But in order to do commissioned work, one must become known. And that happens in any number of ways: making work and entering shows or contests or finding retail outlets that will handle work for a percentage of the sales, putting art on social media or any number of websites. Still the odds against making significant sales are quite steep.

Still artists have choices: they can modify their work to appeal to greater number of people, assuming they can figure out what will make their work more generally appealing. Or they can continue to make work that they want/need to make and hope that by targeting where they show it, they can reach an audience with similar taste.

Both paths have positives and negatives, and which path an artist chooses to take is strictly up to that artist. But the likes and dislikes of an audience must be taken into account in some way or the other if the artist is to be successful. And unfortunately, there are few formulas that will work because, as the old saying has it, “There’s no accounting for taste.”

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The Appropriate Response

Sunday, 3. July 2022 17:13

My Instagram feed is normally a quiet place where I can look at pictures and view things related to art—very different from my other social media feeds. This week, however, it blew up. A number of artists who have never published anything remotely political were not only publishing political statements, but very strong ones. The cause, of course, was the egregious series of US Supreme Court rulings that came out at the end of June. Collectively, they were just too much for many of the people I follow on Instagram, so they spoke out.

In talking with people who are normally the most pacific of people, I have found that a number of people have been depressed by the actions of the Court. Others are extremely fearful of the future of individual rights in the United States, particularly for women and people of color. Yet others are ready to take to the streets—with any number of potential outcomes. And some people are talking about emigrating, or at least moving to a different state. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything quite like this before.

All of this led me to wonder what the appropriate response for an artist to such a setback in human rights should be. Of course, no one can tell anyone what a “proper” response should be, but perhaps some responses are more suitable than others.

The first and biggest question is whether we should use our artistic skills and imagination to produce political pieces that express our outrage, or despair, or fear. While each artist will have to answer that question for themselves, I do not think that such a move is absolutely necessary. A number of artists depend on their work for income, and to suddenly shift to political content would require the cultivation of a completely different audience, and that would, of course, take time and energy which may be better used elsewhere. This is not to say that we should not make political art. For some that might be the most direct and forceful response, and I certainly wouldn’t rule that out. But, for some, the downside would be too big.

What to do then? The first thing is what a number of artists have already done: speak out and continue speaking out—using whatever platform is available. Thus the numerous statements that came across my Instagram feed. Some have, or will want to demonstrate. The important thing, I think, is to be sure that those in power hear our voices. Some politicians have already heard the voices and have responded in a positive fashion. Speaking out—at least in this instance—may bring us negative feedback, but it may also bring us allies, which will make our voices all the stronger.

The other thing that we can do, while it still matters, is vote and encourage others to vote. There are a number of elections that were decided by a very small number of votes. And in these times, every election at every level of government is important. So we need educate ourselves about those who are running for office—and I cannot emphasize this enough—even the “smallest” office. They are all important. Once educated, we need to educate others, and get them to the polls. Our rights and freedoms depend on it.

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Make Bold Choices

Sunday, 19. June 2022 21:56

In actor training we stress making choices, encouraging actors to make bold choices.  While it would seem that making choices is basic to creating anything, but this does not seem to be the case. Evidently making conscious choices during the creative process is not intuitive to everyone who takes up an art. To many beginning actors, this seems to be a foreign process; they make no choices at all, particularly not strong ones. This has led me to wonder whether the same is true for other arts and artists as well.

Most of us come to art because of a natural aptitude. It’s something we don’t think about very much; we just do it. We draw; we paint; we photograph; we act—all because it’s an easy thing for us to do. Then we get to the point where we are no longer progressing and we make a decision to continue as we are or to get some training to help us get better. Training comes in lots of formats: it may be formal classes, or it may be a self-directed course of study, or it may simply be a disorganized study of the work of masters. Still we may not be making conscious choices in our work, and, of course, making no choices is really making choices, probably weak ones.

But what about flow, some may be asking. Surely, in flow, we are working almost subconsciously. That is true, and I am, as most of you know, a great proponent of flow and a great believer in the contributions of the subconscious to the creative process. However, I have also observed the differences between actors who make decisively bold choices and those who do not—or even between work done by the same actor before and after making conscious choices. The difference is remarkable, and the work is always better after strong choices are made. This phenomenon is also observable in other arts, for example, making strong choices almost always means the difference between a good photograph and a mere snapshot. Drawings made with a conscious choice are invariably better than off-hand sketches.

It is as if the conscious choices that the artist makes serve as a foundation for the subconscious work and mixed-conscious work that follows during the process of creation.

But what about those projects that just seem to evolve? The idea appears out of the air and is then turned into preliminary notes which then develop into a full-blown project. How does this idea of conscious choices come into play with them? My suggestion would be that at some point in the process, if we want to make the project all it can be, that we stop and look at what we’ve done so far and make some conscious choices about where the project should be going. These will provide a strong foundation for the project, ensuring a strong finished project.

It may be that that making bold choices is already a part of our process that we don’t fully acknowledge, or perhaps we call that part of the process by another name. Regardless, it would be well to examine our process and verify that this happens early on in the creative journey. As in the case of the young actors noted above, our work will only benefit,

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Is the First Idea the Best?

Sunday, 5. June 2022 22:28

Last week I was discussing an issue with a set piece with the scene designer of a show I am directing. Actually, it was more of him thinking out loud. Finally he said, “The first idea is always the best, isn’t it?” I agreed, knowing that this was not necessarily the case. In this particular instance, he had considered many alternatives; then we brainstormed some more. He returned to his first idea as the best choice; it was more a matter of picking the best rather than returning to the first.

Many teachers and students say that in taking a test, your first answer is usually your best.

Regardless of this anecdotal evidence, an even larger number of writers say that the idea of your first idea being your best is not true, Helly Douglas, among others, has written an article on “Why Your First Idea is Never Your Best: Developing Amazing Writing Ideas.” Another explanation is provided in “The scientific reason why your first idea is rarely your best one.” The notion that the first test response is the best is refuted in “Myth: It’s Better to Stick to Your First Impulse Than Go Back and Change Multiple Choice Test Answers,” which appears on the Association for Psychological Science web site.

However, the notion that our first ideas are our best ones persists. Roger Waters for example, in Pink Floyd: the making of The Dark Side of the Moon, says that the first take is usually the best take. It is much the same idea. However, it did not prevent the band from doing multiple takes of pieces that make up their albums. I have often found that in headshot sessions, the first shot of a particular pose is often better than those that follow; still I shoot more than one.

Given these contradictions, how should we proceed in our day-to-day artistic pursuits? Much the way the scene designer in the first paragraph actually proceeded: take the first idea, then consider alternatives, perhaps develop one or two of these concepts and see where it leads. We may find that our first idea was, in fact, the best alternative; however, we may find that something radically different is a better choice. At first glance, this looks like a long drawn-out process. It isn’t really. Our minds work very rapidly, and once we hit on an idea, most of us find that it blossoms almost automatically, sometimes reforming itself almost instantaneously. If we take a moment—or even longer—to examine each iteration of the idea as it evolves, we will discover which will work the best.

This is not to suggest that this is merely a passive activity. Each of us has their own process and methodology. Ideas sometimes pop into mind, but they must be evaluated and perhaps massaged and developed before they can become a full-blown project. And that preliminary process may or may not better the original idea, but it certainly can facilitate moving only our best ideas forward.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the idea that turns into a project was the first idea or the fifteenth. What matters is that we have a way to advance our best ideas and let the lesser ones either support those best ones or fall by the wayside.

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Just Start

Sunday, 22. May 2022 22:20

One of the things that makes creatives creative is the abundance of imagination. We can hardly close our eyes without seeing images, stories, ideas; then we open our ideas and they disappear as quickly as they came. Often they come in the twilight as we are drifting to sleep, in dreams, in daydreams, when we are bored. Those of us who are lucky or who have enough foresight or who have enough discipline will quickly make notes to record these images, ideas, and stories. For others of us, they just disappear.

What do those of us who manage to get these products of the imagination down on paper or into a computer or tablet do with the list once we have it? Often the answer is “very little;” it turns into a list of potential projects, and there it sits. These potential projects often remain potential and are never really realized as projects. Is it just procrastination or some other reason?

For some, it is our working methodology: we hesitate to try to actualize potential projects because we cannot see the end of the project, so we think we don’t know how to begin. That is, we need to know the outcome before we begin the project. Unfortunately, most of our imaginations do not produce project ideas and images fully developed; it is up to us to take the snippets we dream and develop them.

This cannot happen unless we actually pick up the brush or pen or camera, or keyboard or chisel and actually make a start, trusting in ourselves to develop the project wherever the material takes us. That’s the hard part: beginning the journey of creation without knowing either the location of the end or what the end actually is.

But it’s how we have to do it—if we are ever to create anything. It’s the trusting the process that’s difficult. Many of us think that we will only get as far as we do when we put the thoughts into our potential projects list. And maybe that will happen, but what is more likely to happen is that in actually beginning the project, new insights will develop. We will begin to see where the material might go and we will choose which of the branches to follow, and then even more ideas will develop and we will see further down the path of development. And then finally we will be able to see the end. The realization of the project becomes about discovery.

And the good news is that, at any point in this discovery process, we can go back over what we have already done and edit it, making it better, more meaningful, more stimulating, more engaging. Of course, the edits will alter the course of the project, and thus the final outcome.

But what if development stalls? What if the discovery process fails before we reach the end? We do the same things we do when any project stalls: we examine the project to see if it’s really a failure, we salvage what we can, and we deal with it.

We are still in a better position than if we were waiting around to begin—because we have done something. As basketball and hockey fans will quickly tell you, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The quote is most often attributed to Wayne Gretzky, but regardless of who originally said it, it applies. No matter how creative we are, we cannot realize a project unless we actually start on it.

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Art Can Do That

Sunday, 8. May 2022 23:36

At one point in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, the main character, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who is on a train headed to New York City opens a book and begins to read, “trying to forget who he is and where he is and what he’s doing for a little while.”  He succeeds. Books can do that. Books can take us into worlds that are fantastic or realistic or horrible or joyous or curious or delightful or romantic or…. When we read, particularly when we read fiction, we become completely lost to ourselves; our surroundings seem to cease to be. We ourselves seem to completely disappear, overtaken by action and characters and ideas in the world of the book. And that, very often, is completely wonderful.

The same sort of thing happens with plays and movies. We find our surroundings fade as we focus on the stage of screen, and fade further as we become interested in the characters and their behaviors that we find there. Then as the film or play progresses, we begin to disappear as our whole attention is focused on the characters’ development and the unfolding plot. And once again we have been removed from out every-day existence in our every-day world and immersed in a fantasy or a war or a mystery or an intrigue radically unlike our own lives.

Music transports us in slightly different ways. When we read or watch movies or plays, our bodies are passive, however, in the presence of music, our bodies very often are moving to the rhythm of the music, whether that movement is tapping our feet, moving our hands to the beat, or giving our whole body over the musical experience. Regardless, we still have many of the same responses. Our self-awareness is diminished; our thoughts turn from ourselves and our every-day worries to a complete oneness with the music. There may be visual aspects as well as aural to complete our engagement with the performance, so that all of our senses are completely focused on the event.

But how about arts that are more static, such as paintings, photography, and sculpture? We find that much the same thing can happen. We can get lost in a piece of static art just as surely and completely as we can in a more dynamic piece. Whether it’s the use of color or line that engrosses us or the composition or the detail, each piece of visual or plastic art has its own appeal, and many pieces have such an appeal that we need to spend some time with them. It’s why galleries and museums have strategically placed benches—so we can be comfortable while we are contemplating the work on display. It’s quite easy for many of us to become so absorbed in a photograph or sculpture or painting or drawing that we momentarily lose the use of our unoccupied senses and even become temporarily detached from our immediate environment.

It’s one of the undeniable appeals of art: the facility for involving us completely, for taking us, at least temporarily, out of ourselves. Most of us appreciate a respite from our everyday lives, no matter how pleasant or rewarding our actual lives may be, and art provides not only an escape but completely engaging experience that often returns us to the real world more enriched than when we left it.

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Narrow Your Focus

Sunday, 24. April 2022 22:26

We in educational theatre teach actors not to generalize. There are no generalized actions, emotions, or situations. Everything must be specific: the given circumstances must be specific, and the actors’ responses to those circumstances must be specific as well; this sometimes gives rise to some very specific emotions which are tied to the situation being acted.

It occurs to me that this need for specificity is required in other arts as well. It would be beyond difficult to compose generalized music, or to create a generalized dance. In other arts the difficulty may not be quite so obvious. For example, many are the authors who begin generalized written works only to find out that such are not only difficult, but generally uninteresting. The same holds true for any work of art. Artists need to know not only what they are trying to say, but must decide very specific aspects of that subject. To say that one is writing a play about business in America is a very nebulous thing; to say that one is writing a play about the machinations that go on in a real estate sales operation is a much more specific and practical thing that is far more likely to result in a significant, compelling dramatic work.

The same is true, of course, of painting or photography or poetry. To be really viable, the work of art, and thus the artist, must be very specific, very focused. It is only through the explicit that we can say the things that actually need to be said—without generating a generalized work that, even if well-reasoned, will fail to hold the audience.

But what if artists want to tackle large subjects? How should they handle that? The answer is to narrow their focus, hone in on specific aspects of the topic they want to broach, and by creating detailed and focused work, reflecting the larger topic. For example, can there be any stronger anti-war statement than an artwork which depicts specifics of human suffering as the result of war? Can there be a stronger indictment of unethical business practices than a work which portrays the human cost of such practices?

Not only can focusing on specifics make the work stronger, it can aid the artist in creating the work. Many times, one of the problems of the artist is having too much material to deal with, particularly when trying to tackle a big subject. Focusing on one specific aspect of the subject can help the artist limit the subject matter so that it is easier to deal with; the artist can focus on a singular part of the overall topic instead of trying to deal with a massive subject area that defies organization.

Concentrating on one aspect of a subject can also keep the artist on track in terms of realizing the project. The artist can check the relevancy of parts of the project as they are assembled, thus preventing digressions and irrelevancies.

So instead of wandering aimlessly around a topic or area of concern, artists who narrow their focus have a much greater likelihood of producing really concentrated, meaningful art than those who do not. It is certainly something to consider as we contemplate our upcoming projects.

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The Art is Not the Artist

Sunday, 10. April 2022 23:32

Serendipitously, in the middle of a conversation about “terrible people” making good art, I received a text telling me that playwright director David Mamet was/is a supporter of Donald Trump. Evidently, Mamet had done an interview with Bill Maher, and his political leanings, of which I had known for some time, came as a surprise to many people. Clearly, one of these was the person texting me, who is an outspoken liberal, and who was using this discovery to put Mamet into the category of “terrible people,” or at the very least, “terribly misguided people.”

Of course, the judgement that anyone is a terrible anything is subjective. It depends first on the judge’s point of view. To some, a person’s political leanings make them terrible. For others, it’s their behavior. Equally subjective is the definition of what constitutes terrible beliefs or actions. Third is the assumption that the judge has the “correct” view of what is right and wrong, what is desirable and what is not. And fourth, of course, is another assumption: that the judge has all the information on the subject at hand.

Once we’ve gotten past the subjective areas of such judgement, the question of the proper response comes up. We all know that one of the most frequent responses is the knee-jerk response to “cancel” the individual in question. For example, in the case of Mamet, a number of commenters to the Tweet said that they could no longer watch his films or plays because of this new knowledge. Some even said that this knowledge changed the meaning of his work which was created long before his political views shifted to the right.

We incorporated this “new” information into our conversation and continued. We discussed instances where really excellent art was produced by people that most would consider “terrible.” The facts of the artist’s life did not really impact the art work itself. In fact, in most instances, the personal proclivities were not apparent in the work at all. The conclusion was that it is probably better to try to separate the art and the artist, and that while neither of us would condone nor excuse bad behavior, once the art was created, it was no longer part of the artist. Therefore, it should be evaluated on its own merits rather than as an appendage to the “terrible person” who created it.

Separating the art and the artist is, of course, easier to do with artists who produce physical artifacts: plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, film. In the case of actors and performers, the separation is much more difficult, since the artifact and the artist are inseparable. Additionally, there seems to be a difference between artists who integrate their bad behavior with the work process, and those whose objectionable conduct happens away from the creative process.

It also seems that society is much more likely to forgive transgressions if the artist involved is dead. Also it seems that the further removed in time society is from the artist and the transgression, the easier it is to overlook terrible behavior. It turns out that a number of revered past artists were terrible by many standards, and society, which is quick to cancel contemporary artists who exhibit bad behavior, simply looks the other way in hindsight.

This is not a simple issue. It must take into account the art, the artist, current society, as well as the observer/judge’s own beliefs and biases. There may be no right answer. I am convinced, however, that the art and the artist are not the same and that to judge one in terms of the other is to do both a great disservice. And even after we separate the art and the artist, we must respond to both; how we do that is up to each individual and depends on who we are and how we relate to both the artist and what they create.

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