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If I Don’t Make It

Sunday, 22. January 2017 23:40

If I don’t make it, I can always teach.” Maybe, but you may not be any good at it—because it’s a different skill set. And you may not like it, because it’s not only a different skill set, it requires a different mindset.

And be assured, just because you’re good at one (producing art or teaching art), does not mean that you will be good at the other. In fact, I have recommended that certain people go into teaching who I would never recommend be performers; likewise I have suggested that others should set their goals on performing and forget the “security” of teaching.

And speaking of that whole teaching security thing, it doesn’t really exist. Teaching has become far less secure over the past 10 years for a number of reasons. And then there’s the educational bureaucracy, which has become far more onerous in roughly the same amount of time. These factors, taken together, make teaching in the arts a far less attractive occupation than it might have been several years ago.

Well, if I teach, I will have time to do my art afterwards.” No, you won’t. Those who try this find that the only way to pull it off is to slack on one or the other or relegate one or the other to part-time status. Good teaching takes enormous time and preparation. Yes, this is true even in those studio courses where it seems is that all the instructor does is wander in and offer a few suggestions and some critiques. Any instructor worth his/her salt has already been thinking about members of the class and how best to facilitate their development. The class is merely an implementation of those strategies. Thus there is little time left for creating art.

Likewise, if you spend the majority of your time, effort, and ingenuity on producing your art, you will be less than a good teacher. Teaching requires just as much time, effort, and creativity as producing art, so when one spends all of that artistic capital on making art, there is less available for teaching. Students may not understand this until years later, if ever. They may never know they’ve been short-changed—until they try to compete with others who had teachers and coaches who were more concerned with training their students than with their own success in the artistic marketplace.

The other thing you will likely be after a day of either teaching or making art, is tired. You simply may have insufficient energy to do whichever one comes second, at least on a daily basis.

While it is possible to be a really good full-time teacher and a really good full-time artist at the same time, the individuals who can pull it off are very rare. Unless the teacher somehow combines teaching and making art, the quality of the art or volume of output is sure to suffer.

And that may not be a bad thing. The world can still enjoy the work of the artist/teacher, just not as much of it. In the meantime, the world gains the benefit of a person of a person who not only imparts information, but who attempts to shape the experiences of students so those students can realize their own potential, a person who guides, encourages, and challenges his/her students to become the artists and teachers of tomorrow. And those are valuable people.

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

TIL

Monday, 12. December 2016 0:25

Any day that you learn something is a good day; any day that you learn multiple things is an amazing day. I had one of those recently.  The day was to be the opening of a show I had directed; I was planning a personal project that was giving me problems; and there was heavy rain in Houston area. As the day progressed, I learned not one, but five important things. Maybe learned is the wrong word; some of these things I already knew, at least theoretically, but having them so strongly reinforced was like learning them all over again.

  1. Trust your subconscious. The first lesson of the day had to do with that personal project and occurred while I was in the shower. The solution of one of the problems that I had been beating my head against for a week suddenly appeared—not tentatively, but full-blown and complete. I can only assume that since I had all the associated facts in my head but could not consciously find a solution, my subconscious took over and worked on it while I slept. I don’t know that this is the ideal way to solve all problems, but letting the brain do its thing is highly recommended.
  2. Worry is pointless. About 2:30 pm, one of the lead actors in the show texted to say that he was flooded in and might not be able to get to the theatre that evening; he would try, but his appearance was far from certain. I texted the stage manager and told her to alert the understudy, who, I was sure, was underprepared. That she could not find him was cause for concern. I suggested she try his girlfriend, and there he was. At this point I realized that I had done all I could do. The actor would appear or not, and the understudy would go on or not. There was literally nothing I could do at this point to impact the outcome of the evening. So instead of fretting, which would have been my usual path, I asked everyone to keep me posted via text and took a much-needed nap; it was a far better choice.
  3. Trust your staff. Knowing that the understudy was probably underprepared, the stage manager called him early and had him come in to freshen up blocking and lines and to familiarize himself with the show props he had never touched. Evidently, she did this quite methodically, knowing that it would help not only his preparedness but his state of mind. By the time the actor appeared, the understudy was a prepared as he could be, because the stage manager had indeed managed the situation.
  4. Truth can be found in unexpected places. You may have had the experience of reading or (if, like me you are an audio book fan) listening to a book, and having truth jump out at you. It may have been something you thought and the author put into words for you, or it may have been an observation about people or life that struck you as terribly insightful. (Sometimes, such statements impact me so much they appear in my blog posts.) Those moments are to me like finding jewels in the gravel. This happened on the same day. The book was The City of Mirrors (Book 3 of the Passage Trilogy) by Justin Cronin. Cronin had put some observations about people that struck me as remarkably insightful into the minds and mouths of his characters. It was like getting an unexpected present.
  5. Project completion is a joy in and of itself, and worth celebrating. I went to the theatre for opening night. My part in the production was complete; the show was now in the hands of the stage manager and the actors. That, for me, is always a bitter-sweet experience. The joy comes from having experienced the process and from knowing that completion of one project always opens the way to the next project.

Try as we might, it’s not every day that we get to learn something, and in my experience, any day that brings multiple learnings is worth celebrating, or at least remarking upon. So I did. Hopefully, the things I learned last Saturday will resonate with you as well.

Category:Education | Comment (0) | Author:

What about the Un-Obsessed?

Monday, 14. November 2016 1:30

There have been a lot of posts about artists and obsession and the integral connection between the two.  But what of those who are not really obsessed in a single direction? They are not driven to engage in a specific art, i.e. to paint or act or write, but they are driven to make art or some kind. These are those who recognize that they “can’t not art.” What are they to do and how are they to do it? Or how about those who decide that multiple personal revenue streams make sense (as a number of contemporary financial advisors suggest).

We are not set up for polymaths.

Some of those who “can’t not art” have a vague notion of what art they want to work in. They may want to do two-dimensional art or they may want to work in music or they may want to do theatre. What they don’t know is which specific area or specialization of the overall field they want to work in.

We are not set up for undecides.

By we, I mean arts training programs.

Collegiate systems and, to a lesser degree, private training programs are all set up to train students in a single area. With few exceptions these programs expect students to come in with a specialization in mind so they can be slotted into the exact program that trains the student in that specialty. In a few programs there is concern that students be exposed to all specialties within an art, but, for the most part, programs are supporting a very specific type vocational training or area of concentration.  The only concession to a truly educated student population is the forced core curriculum. But even that does not foster a real well-rounded education, and there certainly is no exposure to all the sub-disciplines within an art.

This approach coupled with mandated hour requirements for a degree restricts students’ exploration. For public institutions, the state legislature determines that only n credit hours and not more can be counted toward a degree, and those hours and their relation to the degree plan are subject to local, state, and federal scrutiny for financial aid purposes. So the student is not allowed to explore a multiplicity of areas.

How is the student supposed to find the right path when the system requires that he/she establish an educational path to a career when he/she is eighteen years old? And how many eighteen-year-old know what they really want to do for a career, particularly when the choices are restricted?

So the polymaths and undecideds are just screwed…

Unless they can find a program that requires that they learn all areas of an art. In such programs students can experience a number of sub-disciplines and then make a far more intelligent decisions about which of those sub-disciplines is the best fit for them. Some even choose multiple areas to generate multiple revenue streams. There are a number of actors, for example, who support themselves when they are not in a show by doing technical theatre or management work.

But such programs are in the minority.

So the polymaths and the undecideds have to do it themselves. They can take courses outside their degree plans or online or in non-credit programs to obtain background. But the best way to learn is to actually work in the field; the explorer can get an internship (paid is better) and find out if a particular area fits. A young person I know who “can’t not art” is going to do exactly that. She told me that she was going to take the time to “dip [her] toes into several ponds” before she made a final decision. A wise approach, I think.

 

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A Question of Ethics

Monday, 31. October 2016 0:48

The question of ethics is not one that comes up very often in arts education except as regards plagiarism. However, there is the occasional consideration. A friend of mine who teaches visual and plastic arts sent me this problem recently. Although the case he presents here is hypothetical, I think he may have encountered a similar real-life situation:

A student in some one of the arts comes to his/her instructor with a project idea that is not only contrary to the instructor’s beliefs but would probably be offensive to a majority of society (hate speech, fringe group propaganda, pornography, advocating violence for some reason, advocating cultural or racial paranoia,). Which is the appropriate path for the instructor?

  1. A. Help the student incorporate the message into his/her art because art is about communication and the teacher’s job is to guide the student in achieving the student’s goal.
  2. Let the student know that what he/she is doing is inappropriate and a probable detriment to society, and counsel the student that art should be for the betterment of society.
  3. Considering the greater good for the community, discourage the student from completing the project, at least with its present direction.
  4. Some combination of A, B, and C
  5. Some other answer

Anyone thinking about the problem for more than a moment will realize that the choices are not all that simple. For example, if one were to choose 1, would the instructor then be an accessory to the production of questionable art, to the production of hate speech, porn, advocating violence or paranoia? Without instruction, the piece would probably be less effective and thus damage society less. Or is the instructor completely without responsibility in this situation?

In considering answer 2, one must ask oneself whether art really should be for the betterment of society. While that is the goal of a lot of art, I don’t know that it should be the goal of all art. Actually, I would be very hesitant to assign any one single goal to art. People make art for all sorts of reasons; some of them are political, and some, decidedly, are not.

The problem with 3 is that to advocate for the greater good, one would must know what the greater good is. And who is to say that the instructor’s view of the greater good is accurate? To the best of my knowledge, teaching in the arts does not entail any special insight into the needs of society, whether those needs be sociological, cultural, or political.

While not mutually exclusive, 1-3 are designed to be not easy to combine so 4 is difficult at best and adds unneeded complexity at worst.

My answer (5) combines 1 with a part of 2. The instructor’s job is, I believe, not to censor the student, but rather is to guide the student in developing the skills with to achieve his/her goal. However, that guidance must be more comprehensive than just advice on technique and methodology. Part of that guidance must be advising the student when he/she is doing something that is in bad taste and that might be a detriment to society. The student should understand what the impact of his/her work is likely to be and understand what reactions the work might receive.

What was your answer?

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To Hell with a Backup Plan

Monday, 4. April 2016 1:06

The last post discussed finding one’s real passion. It naturally follows that once found, that passion should, and in some cases must, be pursued.  But there is a fear that to do so might lead to a difficult life or even to unemployment. So students beginning their study of theatre, particularly acting (and I assume all arts), often begin looking for a backup plan immediately. Not only are parents concerned for the future security of their children, but the students themselves have come to recognize that to be successful in the arts business is difficult. Sadly, that difficulty seems to be a deterrent.

This leads me to three thoughts. The first is that if a person is seeking employment security in 21st century America, that person is living in a fantasy world. Ask any petroleum engineer in Houston; that was an unbelievably secure occupation until the bottom fell out of petroleum prices and hundreds were laid off. Teaching, particularly K-12, used to be one of the most secure jobs in the country; no longer. No one who gets an MBA has a backup plan, but sometimes he/she doesn’t get employed. The arts are no different.

My second thought is a question: why would a person waste his/her time and money studying a profession if he/she thought leaving that profession for another would be a good choice in the future? It would be far more economical in terms of finances, energy, and time to abandon that path immediately and put one’s energies into a more rewarding endeavor.

My third thought is a piece of advice: forget the arts; go do the backup plan. My rationale is that if a person, at the very beginning of his/her journey into the arts is considering a less-difficult path, then that person probably does not have the requisite determination (passion) to succeed in the arts. There will be far less frustration and heartache following the easier route. If, on the other hand, a person is truly passionate about his/her art, the ultimate frustration will be not following that passion.

Instead of working on a backup plan, a student would better use his/her time doing two things: (1) doubling-down on the time spent working on the chosen art. If a person is of the opinion that his/her chosen art is going to be a difficult one in which to make a living, it only stands to reason that the more knowledgeable and skilled will have a better chance of succeeding.  There are no guarantees of course, but more knowledge and skill always improve the odds.

(2) The time that would have been spent working on the backup plan would be better used figuring out how to manage pursuing one’s passion. And this is really the heart of the matter: what is important to a person about his/her art? Is it the doing of it or the making a living at it? If the former, then the way may be different from those seeking to make a living at art. Courtney Lomelo, a working actor in Houston has said, “I have another career during the day that is far from the Arts. . . my day job IS my side job. I like it and it affords me comfort and not to have to worry or take acting jobs that don’t resonate with me just because I need to eat. I can focus more on my craft than ever. I can do it unabashedly without being torn between survival and craft.” That may not work for everyone, but might for some.

There are all sorts of ways for pursuing one’s passion. Spend a little time figuring out which one works for you and go toward that goal with all you have. Make the plan for your passion your main plan and your only plan. To hell with a backup plan.

[This is my second post on the topic of backup plans. The first is here.]

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The Path to Passion

Monday, 21. March 2016 0:13

“Acting is my passion!!” is a statement those of us who teach theatre have heard more times than we care to think about. And for one in a hundred, it’s true. For most, it’s what one is says when one is studying drama and has not yet discovered his/her true passion, or maybe even his/her real direction.

For most theatre (and other arts) students there are tens if not hundreds of choices. Everything interests them, so with such an overabundance of choice, it becomes easier to settle on one that seems comfortable and desirable and expected than it is to explore all of the possibilities to discover one’s actual passion. So they profess that acting is their passion and their life.

All one has to do is watch, and the actions of these will tell you whether they want to really be actors or not. People who are passionate about acting will behave like they are passionate about acting. They want to learn all they can about the craft. They want to do actual acting. If they’re not doing it, they’re talking about it or reading about it, or watching it or thinking about it, all of which, for an artist, is part of doing.

Just like writers in the anecdotes who would write on any scrap of paper they could find, those who are passionate about acting, who must act, will find a way. They may not become professional actors, but they might. They might find that some other path provides a better opportunity for income, so the passion gets relegated to the status of hobby or side-job; others go the other way: they take side-jobs so they can afford to be a professional at the work that is their passion.

“People are known by their actions, not their words.”   It’s a sentiment that gets attributed to lots of people in lots of time and places. It’s also true. If a student indicates by actions that he/she doesn’t want what he/she says is wanted, then that student is not being truthful or he/she cannot connect want and behavior.

If a student who has declared acting to be his/her life spends more time on computer games, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she wants to be a professional computer gamer, but rather that he/she doesn’t want to be an actor. What such a student really wants is impossible to determine; it may be some other area of drama or completely outside the theatrical universe.

The larger problem comes when the artist-to-be doesn’t know where or how to look elsewhere. Some of us, teachers or not, have encountered this same problem before we found the path that led to the passion that has brought us to where we are today. So now we owe it to these young artists (whether they are students or not) to guide them away from that which obviously is not their passion and encourage them to discover what really kindles their imaginations, what, once discovered, they can’t not do.

And we must remind them that there really are no restrictions on which paths to explore. I know a number or people who, had they felt really free to explore without limits when they were young, would have ended up with far different artistic lives.

Almost everyone advises us to follow our passion. Sound advice, I think, but you can’t follow it if you can’t find it.

Category:Creativity, Education | Comments (4) | Author:

Focus, Energy, Concentration, and Presence

Monday, 6. April 2015 0:24

The difference between Broadway actors and student actors is often not talent—at least not completely. It is the energy, focus, presence, and ability to exist in the moment for the length of the show and the length of the run. These are things that are difficult to teach and difficult to learn, at least to judge by what we see in the classroom—and on stage. However, I recently saw an outstanding example of these qualities in an actor, and that caused me to rethink.

What happened was that I accepted an invitation to a final dress rehearsal of a children’s musical. The cast was made up of acting instructors, mostly members on Actor’s Equity, one child lead, and an ensemble made up of selected students. Never having seen a children’s show by this particular organization, I had no idea what to expect, nor did I know who was involved, since there were no programs at this rehearsal. I was pleasantly surprised. Production values were excellent; I had seen some of the adult performers work before and was not disappointed in this production. The ensemble consisted of 15-20 kids of varying ages; all had wireless microphones, indicating to me that they were not just background, but were expected to really sing and be heard. And they acquitted themselves well. The identical precision that one sees in a seasoned ensemble was missing, of course, but what replaced it was a youthful energy and individual interpretation of direction and choreography that revealed a great deal about each actor’s mindset and level of development (a blog for another time, perhaps).

What really struck me was a single member of the ensemble. This was a young woman of about 14 (her age was later confirmed). When the ensemble was singing and dancing, she most often occupied a position immediately left of whichever principal was featured in the number. She did not need the propitious positioning to be noticed. It is difficult to remember any performer who exhibited more focus, energy, concentration, and presence than this teenager. I later learned that several other audience members had a similar response.

In every number, she was fully engaged, focused, and performing with an energy that is seldom equaled. And she did it number after number. So rare is this type of performance that I found myself waiting for her next stage appearance and concentrating on her more than the principals. If there was music playing, she was channeling it with her whole body whether she was singing or not. When there was no music, she slipped convincingly into whatever character she was playing at the time.

Some would say that the director should have asked her to tone it down. I have to disagree. Given that she was working with professionals, the director should have asked those professionals to step up their game. This was not a case of “the kid was cute;” this was a case of the kid was superlative.

Why take the time to write about an ensemble member I do not know in a children’s show that has already closed? Because what she did was exactly what we who teach want actors to do: exist in the moment, completely focused on the role, hitting the stage with outstanding presence, and performing with unflagging, almost preternatural energy.

A more important question is why this teenager exhibited these characteristics and other same-aged members of the ensemble with the same teachers did not. My guess is that she not only listened to her teachers, but somehow had the internal mental and emotional mechanisms to put it all together.

That is the part that nobody I know knows exactly how to teach. We all say essentially the same things about concentration, focus, energy, presence, mindfulness and the necessity of these qualities. We provide exercises and methodologies. But only one in 50 (if that many) will put it all together. Those are the ones who get the work. Those are the ones who, when they are on stage, we must watch.

These are difficult qualities to instill in students. One wonders if we just haven’t yet figured out how to teach our students how put it all together, or if it is inborn and we just help develop it. My suspicion is that it is a combination of several factors: the instructor’s ability to clearly explain these difficult concepts coupled with the students’ ability to absorb information and the individual student’s mental, emotional, spiritual makeup, plus all those other factors, unique to each student, that determine the level of the student’s commitment and his/her willingness to implement new ideas.

Whether I have an acting class or not, this subject occupies my thoughts frequently. If you have any related thoughts you would like to share, I would certainly appreciate hearing them.

Category:Education, Theatre | Comments (1) | Author:

Sixteen Blogs You Should Be Reading and Probably Aren’t

Monday, 23. February 2015 1:25

One of the problems of the 21st century is the glut of information. How do you know what to give attention to and then how do you separate the worthwhile stuff from all the rest? My solution is fivefold:

  1. Use a good news reader to aggregate the articles that you might be interested in and keep them in one place. There are a number of newsreaders out there that can be used on your smartphone, tablet, or desktop; most are free, but you might put in a little time researching since different readers have different features, and you want to be certain you get the one that fits you.
  2. Use your reader software to subscribe to worthwhile websites and sit back and wait for the information you want to arrive.
  3. Scan the headlines and articles of interest. Read only those that really make you pause.
  4. Scan regularly; otherwise you will be buried in information.
  5. Prune from time to time. Sites appear, move, change, and disappear, so updating your list in a timely fashion will ensure that you are getting the information you want.

To help you on your way, I have listed here (alphabetically) my favorite arts sites with a tiny explanation of why I think they are worth considering.

  • Art Attack” is a collection of Houston Press art and culture blogs and stories. These range from local to international and include some regular “columns” that are worthwhile.
  • Art Biz Blog” is a blog where Alyson Stanfield deals with topics related to the business side of art: everything from practical “how-to” articles to thought-provoking articles related to the business of art.
  • Artist Marketing Resources” is Maria Kazalia’s blog which features articles designed to address all aspects of the art-marketing problem. She presents lots of sound advice and useful resources.
  • Arts and Letters Daily” Daily in-depth articles about subjects related to arts and letters. It gives you a teaser so you can decide if you really want to read the article.
  • Arts on Huffington Post or “Huffpost Arts & Culture” is a compendium of arts news from around the world. This is one that you have to pay attention to for a couple of reasons: first, almost anything that is anything in the contemporary arts world is reported here. Second, if you don’t watch it, your news reader will collect hundreds of posts from this feed; the number of daily postings is astounding.
  • Arts Journal: Daily Arts News” is another aggregate site, but instead of whole articles there are summaries and links which makes your scanning and evaluating even faster. This site will often have the stuff that Huffpost doesn’t.
  • The Art Newspaper” is a collection of up-to-date international art news.
  • Austin Kleon” is a blog named for its author, Austin-based poet, writer, and artist. Kleon always has something worth reading, whether it’s his latest blackout poem or observations and advice on creativity.
  • Beautiful Minds” is Scientific American’s blog on the mind by Scott Barry Kaufman. Well-researched and documented, these are complete in-depth articles.
  • Brain Pickings is Maria Popova’s outstanding site that provides articles on art, thought, and creativity. Popova documents heavily and scatters pithy quotes throughout. Her site should be required reading for all thinking artists.
  • The Creative Mind” presents Douglas Eby’s writings on creativity and the plethora of issues and conditions associated with creativity.
  • Glasstire Texas Visual Art News” offersTexas arts news.
  • Juxtapose Magazine” is an in-your-face collection of articles and features about contemporary art, or art that is making contemporary news. Some of the work covered is a bit edgy.
  • The 99 Percent” presents articles and interviews by a variety of writers. The common thread is that all the articles are about ideas and creativity. Some interesting stuff can be found here.
  • Self vs. Self” is Hazel Dooney’s blog. Subtitled “Outside the White Space,” the blog contains the passionate and insightful writing of this successful Australian artist. Dooney has not posted since 2013 for a number of reasons (search online if you really want to know), but this archive contains eight years of worthwhile reading about the role of the individual artist and his/her relation to the gallery system as well as other thoughts on art-related topics.
  • Seth’s Blog” is Seth Godin’s daily musings and advice. The proponent of tribe theory has daily suggestions for marketing and shipping the work as well as keeping the business side of things running effectively and efficiently. He always provides food for thought, usually in very small doses.

This list is far from exhaustive, and it’s only a starting point. It contains the arts sites I already scan on a regular basis, but I would really be interested to hear your nominations too.

Remember, you can never have too much information—if it’s the right information, and if you can manage it.

 

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The Fear Factor

Sunday, 2. November 2014 22:41

We in the US have become quite adept at being afraid. Perhaps we always have been; remember the Red Scare from your history books? Today, however it seems more infectious and widespread. We are afraid of terrorists, of Ebola, of that woman in the burka, of being on an airplane with someone who has more than 2 ounces of gel or liquid, of being mugged, of brown kids at the border. And, sadly, we have politicians who feed those fears in order to gain the power of an elective office.

It is difficult to tell if this seeming rise in number of things we fear has contributed to our individual psychologies, but I rather suspect it has. It seems that many people hear only a portion of what is said, particularly if it is a complex statement, and the part that they hear invariably is the part that contains something to fear.

A case in point is the email I received just this past week: a former student is taking an acting class at an upper-level institution, and the instructor is in the Strasberg camp of method actors. The student was alarmed and concerned that what the instructor was asking of her and her classmates would be “damaging to their psyches.” She was seeking advice on how to proceed.

In all fairness, I had said in a class that she took with me that I thought that Strasberg’s methodology was flawed and could be dangerous, primarily because Strasberg insisted that all emotion come directly from the actor’s personal experience. Stanislavski, creator of method acting, endorsed this approach, but only after it was clear that the actor could not get the requisite emotion from the script. I would agree. I also recommend doing nothing using method techniques unless a trained coach is present—primarily because those new to method may not have sufficient judgment to make correct choices. This student (and others, I’m sure) heard only part of this. In her new class she wants, it seems, to avoid all those potential dangers not only for herself, but for everyone in the room.

That’s a lot to ask, and almost certainly guaranteed to inhibit learning. My response included these points:

  • Keep an open mind always.
  • Whatever one thinks about Strasberg’s methodology, it has significant value to offer. Strasberg trained some really good actors using his techniques, so it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
  • It is really doubtful that exposure to a couple of semesters using of this technique under the guidance of an experienced coach would be damaging to any person who did not have serious problems to begin with.
  • The evidence presented indicates that the instructor is knowledgeable and gets results. This is the guy you want running the class.
  • Give it an honest try. There is much to be learned from this technique and much to be learned about one’s self as well.
  • How the teacher impacts other students is not properly your concern, unless all students are impacted in a seriously negative fashion.
  • Sometimes exercises that make the actor uncomfortable are the most effective way for the actor to learn what he/she needs at the moment. Art is not always comfortable.
  • Any artist unwilling to risk or unwilling to allow him/herself to be vulnerable cannot expect much artistic success.

And the last point is really the point. Unfortunately, many now default to a fear response in any situation that is the least bit challenging, mentally wandering off into a series of worst-case scenarios. This may be the least useful reaction to any situation for an artist. And the medium doesn’t matter. The last post discusses this problem; I couldn’t follow my plan and was temporarily afraid to explore new areas—a typical fear response. It’s such a significant problem for artists that David Bayles and Ted Orland have written a book about it, Art & Fear.

Fear can be intimidating or even immobilizing. Artists who want to be successful must be fearless. As I look back over my responses to the former student, it seems that they would apply to any artist in any medium. We must stay open to possibilities and information regardless of the source. We must be willing to be uncomfortable. And, above all, we must be willing to risk, to become completely vulnerable; only then can we really create.

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Grading Creative Work

Sunday, 18. May 2014 18:40

Because I teach theatre in an academic environment, at least twice a year I am faced with the problem of grading creative work. Some would question the efficacy of grades in an arts course at all. This is why many prefer to teach workshops, or non-academic arts courses where grades don’t exist. The teacher, or leader, or facilitator does a critique of the work, sometimes involving others, sometimes not, and that is all. No grades are assigned. It is likely that there is no permanent record of the evaluation of the work done. In some of these workshop situations, there is no evaluation at all; rather the leader offers guidance and suggestions about where to take the work and what explorations the artist might make.

So why do grades? Well, the academic system requires it. We must evaluate and record our students’ accomplishments and failures. It turns out, that although they may say otherwise, students require it as well (see below).

Unfortunately, unless one has developed an immensely sophisticated method of grading, those letters or numbers reflect only what was done on a particular assignment on a particular day. And while that may correspond with reality, the likelihood is very rare. No matter how hard we try, most grading systems do not take into account growth and development; nor can they fully represent real quality of the process involved to produce the work. And sometimes, because of work not done, the final grade bears no relation at all to the student’s ability to create artistically.

My undergraduate acting professor developed a way to get around these problems and keep his administration happy. At the beginning of the course, he offered the class a choice between the traditional five-letter grading system and the B/F system. If one did the work and made an honest attempt, no matter how ill or how well, one would make a B. If one did not, one would fail; there were no A, C, or D grades. Unanimity was required for implementation of the B/F system, and my class chose it without hesitation. The pressure to “make a grade” was instantly removed. And the system did not prevent those who wanted to do A work from doing so; it did, however, force them to seek excellence for itself, and not for some end-of-term reward. It was a great system so far as I was concerned. There was never any doubt about the quality of work that we were actually doing because of the critiques and guidance, but none of us were worried about grades.

Because I had such appreciation for the freedom that the B/F system offered, for the first several years that I taught acting, I offered the same choice to my classes. All rejected it, sometimes by huge margins.

And perhaps they were right; perhaps the B/F system belongs to a different, more idealistic world. The fact of the matter is that once the artist is working, whatever art he/she makes will be evaluated, sometimes not too kindly. So not evaluating creative work seems, to me, a disservice to the student. The student needs to know what others, particularly those who have training and experience in the field, think of his/her work. This is not to suggest that the student necessarily modify his/her work to satisfy the public. Rather it is to prepare the student for the kind of reception his/her work might garner in the arts marketplace; that is necessary survival intelligence and information that many students need. Some of the students who walk into my acting class having been told for years that they are great, only to discover in the crucible of the college classroom that they have been misled. Some may not have the talent they thought they had; some believe that because they have talent, work is not necessary; some have an inflated perception of the talent they do have. Others, because of insecurity and other issues, consistently underestimate their skills.

So, for any of a number of reasons, students in the arts must be evaluated. And in academia, these evaluations must be distilled into letter grades. It is better that these students go ahead and learn that constant evaluation is part of the working artist’s life. That whether it is from a critic, a peer, or the public, everyone who sees their work will have an opinion, and in some cases, those opinions can turn into jobs or commissions or not.

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

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