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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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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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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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When Artistic Growth Stops

Sunday, 27. March 2022 22:55

One of the things that seldom comes up in discussions of art and creativity is the growth of the artist. And that’s a bit surprising given that growth is absolutely necessary for an artist, and a lack of growth may well end an art career.

There are a number of reasons that artists fail to grow. One may be that they simply run out of new ideas. Another is that they may find themselves repeating work they have already done. Yet another is that the conditions under which they work suppress growth. A fourth is that some event in the artist’s private life impacts the artistic side of their life in a negative manner. Certainly burnout is a cause of lack of growth. And, of course, there are other reasons, and combinations of reasons.

Then there is the problem of what actually constitutes “artistic growth.” A number of Internet articles discuss artistic growth, but what they are really discussing is the development of artistic skill in children, which is not useful in this context. And then there is the issue of different artists and theorists defining “artistic growth” in different ways. Bryan Mark Taylor says that growth comes from practicing rather than performing. Willa Cather says that artistic growth is a “refining of the sense of truthfulness.” I have often said that I never did a project from which I didn’t learn something, and thought for a long time that that was an indicator of artistic growth; I have since come to think of it as more than that, but I am convinced that learning is a component.

Lack of artistic growth can be very frustrating to artists. Some say it feels like writer’s block except that it continues over multiple projects. This frustration can be compounded by a growing lack of interest in the work as well as a growing lack of confidence. And that leads to a downward spiral for artists. So then the question becomes how to maintain artistic growth. One suggestion that I give to my students—for other reasons—is to find something in each project that piques your interest: some emotion to explore, some technique to resolve, some springboard for research. This often works for individual projects, but what about a larger problem that spans different projects?

Caleb Vaughn-Jones, writing for the blog, The Future Muse offers some suggestions in two posts: “Artistic Growth: The Journey to Artistic Fulfillment” and “3 Tips for Creating Original Music.”  There are other suggestions as well: Look for inspiration outside normal channels. Get involved in a workshop either physically or virtually. Talk with colleagues about what they are doing and what they are getting out of it; again, this can be physical or virtual. Read a book that you’ve put off reading. (I have not found creativity self-help books very useful, but you may.) Take a sabbatical. Pick a radically different kind of project. Try a project in a different venue. Do a project in a different medium. If you are working for a company or a school, consider another place of employment. And there are certainly other approaches. Some of these are extreme, but extreme measures may be called for, depending on how important the creation of art is to the particular artist; the alternative is to stagnate artistically.

The main thing is to break whatever patternw are causing the lack of growth. Since lack of artistic growth bridges multiple projects, there will be patterns, although it may take a bit of time to suss them out. Then if becomes a matter of picking the solution, or combination of solutions, that works best for the particular artist involved. Lack of artistic growth is not a simple problem and may not only take some time to acknowledge it, but require a variety of approaches for a solution.

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When You Don’t Like the Art You Make

Sunday, 13. March 2022 22:46

It happens. Sometimes we make art that we don’t really like. This happens for a number of reasons. The work was a consignment piece; we made the work because it was on the schedule; the work didn’t turn out the way we expected; the reasons go on and on. But it feels strange to have made something and realize that you really don’t like it.

So then what do you do? There are a number of choices: you can destroy the piece, if it’s physical. You can rework the piece if there is sufficient time. You can put the piece into the world, but take your name off of it. You can call it a failure (even if it’s not really) and learn from the experience. Or you can recognize that you cannot love everything you make, let it go, and move on to the next project.

This happened to me recently. I directed a show, a musical, and it turned out to be not one of my favorites. There were a couple of reasons: one was the structure of the play; it was more a concert with narrative inserts than a real play, and it was not a show that I would have voluntarily gone to see had someone else staged it—not to my taste. But it was on the schedule and so I directed it. And it was successful. The intended audience showed up and—judging from their reaction—thoroughly enjoyed the show. And through it all, I nodded, and smiled, and said “thank you” when people told me how good it was.

And it was a good show. We worked the script to capitalize on its strengths and minimize its shortcomings. The musical direction was excellent, as was the band. Choreography, though minimal, was exactly what was necessary. The performers were precisely what the script needed to bring it to life. It was simply not to my taste. A valuable lesson I learned long ago from a visiting professor of English literature was to be able to distinguish between art that was good and art that I simply didn’t like. I learned that my liking or not liking a piece of art had no bearing on whether the art was good. That is determined by standards outside of individual likes and dislikes. So despite it being not to my taste, I did the best job directing that I could do, and even came to like certain parts of the show.

Like all artists, I would like to love everything I produce; however, it doesn’t seem possible, particularly when there are so many considerations in determining what projects one works on. So I think that if we are artisans as well as artists, we do pretty much what I did, or tried to do: make the project the best we possibly can. Put it out into the world. Accept whatever the reaction happens to be. Move on to the next project. Maybe it will be one that we can love.

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Unfinished Projects

Sunday, 13. February 2022 17:27

We all have them: unfinished projects cluttering our hard drives, taking up valuable physical storage space, stacked in the corner, piled on shelves, heaped in closets. Whether it’s incomplete canvasses, photography projects, incomplete stories or essays, unfinished musical compositions, or partially-realized sculptures, they all take up some sort of space and add clutter to our creative lives. As we begin to think about moving forward in the year, perhaps it’s time to address the issue of unfinished projects.

They exist for any number of reasons: in some cases, we simply ran dry or hit a wall, and decided to set them aside until we could have a new outlook. In other cases, we lost interest. In yet other cases, newer projects claimed our attention and we more or less forgot these that we left by the wayside. Whatever the reason, we left these projects uncompleted, but kept all the materials, “just in case…”

I am not suggesting that we need to complete all our unfinished projects or throw them out, but rather that we should review them—to determine which are still viable and which should be consigned to the trash. Actually, there are more gradations to our evaluation than just those two. We might review our incomplete projects and decide they go in one of several categories:

  • Finish this. Whatever has caused the incomplete nature of this project is no longer valid, or whatever has caused the lack of completion is no longer effective. We can see a path to the accomplishment of this project, so we should put in in the queue of projects scheduled for completion.
  • It needs more work. This type of project is not yet ready for full development, but might be put into a category of those that we work on in between other projects. Adding a little here, editing a little there, continuing the project, but not in full active mode.
  • Save the embryo. This project started with a solid idea, but the reasons it is incomplete far outweigh the good idea. The best thing that can be done is to salvage the idea and perhaps install it in another project that does not have the attendant problems; this will allow us to discard all the extraneous material, and, in effect, begin again.
  • Not yet. The idea is still solid, but the block to completion still exists. We can see where this project wanted to go and realize that the reason it has not gone forward is still valid and standing in the way of completion. This project goes back into storage for a time.
  • What was I thinking? This project was simply a bad idea from the outset and stopped for a reason, and whether the reason is still valid or not, the project itself is not worth the effort it would take to revive it. We can see if any of the pieces can be salvaged and perhaps recycled into other projects, either existing or future. The rest can be eliminated, allowing us to reclaim the storage space the project is taking up.

What we might do this year, and perhaps annually, is review our unfinished projects, categorizing them as noted above or according to whatever scheme we find useful. In this way we can reclaim both good ideas that just need further work, and space that could be put to better use. And we can unclutter our creative environment.

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Get Back: Persistence and Collaboration

Sunday, 2. January 2022 21:50

By now, almost everyone has heard of The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary created from Michael Lindsey-Hogg’s nearly 60 hours of film and over 100 hours of audio, which is currently streaming on Disney plus. Some of us have actually seen it—or at least parts of it. Opinions vary widely: some say it was too long, with many slow parts. At least one writer wanted it to be longer. Then there were the wildly varying interpretations of what we were viewing. Some pundits saw Yoko’s presence as intrusive; others said it was anything but. Some saw magic in the song-writing; others saw tedium in a group of musicians on the verge of breaking up.

What I saw was a group of very talented musicians at, or near, the top of their game creating and shaping their work. And in doing this they used two primary techniques, one of which is familiar to all who do any type of art. The other may only be familiar to those in the performing arts. The first is persistence, and the second is collaboration.

All who work in the arts know about the persistence that is required. Even those whom the world calls geniuses are required to be persistent to bring a finished work of art into existence. We try this path, and when that path dead-ends, or doesn’t lead to a solution that works, we try something else. This applies equally to a phrase in a song, the details in a photograph, the structure of a sentence, or the reading of a line in a film. Almost every work of art requires this sort of determined diligence. In Get Back we see over and over again the band work on a song trying to find the right phrase, or musical piece to fit into the puzzle of what they are making, and each time they go through a song, it seems to be with the genuine commitment to get it right. There are very few, if any, half-hearted attempts at the music, no matter how many times they go over the same song. That willingness to put everything into each effort is a mark of successful artistry.

The second technique that was in evidence is collaboration, which is also a mark of successful creating, particularly in the performing arts. No matter how many movies we see about dictatorial directors or choreographers—and there certainly have been demanding real-life examples of both—it still takes contributions by a great number of people to create a performance of any kind. And in this case collaboration was much in evidence. One Beatle provided a phrase, another added a musical feature, and on it went. All made contributions, and all worked together in the creative process. And although some contributed more than others to this or that song, in the end it was the work of all four (and the occasional fifth, and here I’m thinking of Billy Preston on the electric piano or Mal Evans on the anvil) that made the creation successful.

According to leading “Beatleologist,” Mark Lewisohn, there is a great deal to be learned about the Beatles from Get Back. But there is also a great deal to be learned about group creativity. And mostly what we learned was that for the Beatles, the work was everything. As Adam Gopnik writing for The New Yorker, put it: “The Beatles work first, praise modestly or not at all…and move on.” The Beatles’ interactions and approach to creativity in Get Back provide us with an outstanding model of successful group creation, one we would do well to emulate.

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