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No, It Doesn’t Always Come Together

Monday, 20. February 2017 0:16

Just over a week ago I was sitting alone after a fairly trying rehearsal, thinking about what we had accomplished and where we ought to go next. Probably I was scowling, which seemed appropriate. It was then I heard someone say, “Don’t worry; it always comes together.” My first impulse was to give a really snarky reply, but I thought the better of it. What would be the point in abusing someone who was not really a theatre person and who was living in the happy delusion that shows always come together?

Then this week after a choreography rehearsal, during which much progress was made (choreography had been a bit behind schedule), the student assistant director made a statement that seemed to indicate that if all the pieces were caught up, the show would somehow mysteriously fall together. This was a little better, but not much.

The fact of the matter is that shows don’t always come together. And those that do, don’t come together by accident or magic.

In most cases there is a certain shared energy in a company that seems to grow as opening approaches, and this helps a production come together. But most directors know that that energy is not enough to build an artistically cohesive production.

Shows come together when someone makes them come together. Ideally it is the director who causes the show to come together, a director who guides/forces/coerces/manipulates the company into coming together, which may be more or less difficult depending on the cast, the designers, the production, and the interpretation.  I have even known directors who purposely initiated director-focused company ire in order to weld the performers into a unit. That works because shows can also come together if a cast, as a whole, is reacting to an incompetent/hateful/unbalanced/weak director. Failing one of these scenarios, the show will not come together, and the results will not be pretty.

A show not coming together can manifest in different ways: often the actors seem to be in different universes or all going in different directions artistically or thematically. The musical numbers may not fit seamlessly into the show. The lights or sound may not coordinate properly with the acting and staging. The costumes may not work with the rest of the show.

But a work of art not coming together is in no way limited to theatre. If the conductor cannot somehow bring together the separate elements of the orchestra, the score, and the interpretation of the score, the concert will fall flat. The same holds true for a choreographer and the dancers.  And a film director is very likely to produce a disjointed movie if he/she cannot bring all the various pieces together.

Nor is the problem limited to the collaborative performing arts. If a photographer and subject don’t somehow come together the result is probably a wasted photo session. The same is true of a painter or sculptor and his/her subject.

In fact, no good art “just comes together.” The disparate elements of any work of art—whether it is performing or visual or plastic or written, whether it is a script or a poem or a novel or a musical composition—must be cajoled, massaged, manipulated, orchestrated—and sometimes forced—to come together. This is the source of a great deal of an artist’s angst—knowing that all the parts must somehow coalesce into a unified whole—and having to work to make that happen. Sometimes, it is not intuitive, or even instinctual; sometimes it is the greatest challenge in making art. And it’s a challenge that we must meet repeatedly—every time we create.

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

The Thing About Fantasy

Monday, 17. October 2016 0:43

Not long ago a tape was released wherein US Presidential candidate Donald Trump detailed the behavior toward women a man can exhibit if he is a celebrity. The backlash was quick and furious. The protest was not, as one popular meme suggests about “naughty words;” it was about the idea that a man does not need to seek consent from women for sexual engagement. One of the defenses of Trump’s words compared those words to the series of erotic romance novels that began with Fifty Shades of Grey.

Critics were quick to point out the false equivalency between Trump’s words and ideas and Fifty Shades of Grey. Trump’s words indicate a willingness to assault real women, with absolutely no concern for consent, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey is a work of fiction. It matters not a whit that an erotic fiction displays no concerns for consent; it’s fiction. And likely, it’s fantasy since all that is required to fall into the category of fantasy is to be “an illusion or a visionary idea.” There don’t have to be dragons, or giants, or magic rings; there just have to be fanciful ideas.

Fantasy is necessary, not only to those works what do have dragons and giants and magic rings, but to all art. The ideas and concepts that do not derive directly from reality, must come from the imagination. Even those stories taken from real life must be given imaginative treatment if they are to become art and not mere reportage.  Those who create are well aware that they are incorporating fantasy into their work. Their work would be lacking without it. So too, the consumers of that art understand that it is, at least in part, fantasy.

In fact, most humans above the age of 4 are really quite adept at discerning the difference between fantasy and reality, even though they may spend hours engaging in fantasy. It’s when that ability to differentiate breaks down that trouble ensues. People try to pattern their sex lives on internet porn. Television fans send messages to series characters warning them about other characters. Readers allow ideas and events in novels to infect their belief systems as though they were true.

Fortunately, such instances are rare. While a number of people play first-person shooter video games, most of those people own no real weapons and would not even consider stepping onto a real battlefield, no matter how heavily armed. Likewise some people enjoy erotic fiction, fully understanding that if the actions described in the fiction were to happen to them in real life, they would be afraid, appalled, and probably disgusted. People rabidly follow the Star Wars stories, knowing all the while that the Rebel Alliance is not a real organization they could join to fight the Empire. They may dress up and go to Comic Con, but they are aware that they are fans, not soldiers.

The thing about fantasy is that it’s fantasy; it is fictional. It is intended to entertain, to engage the imagination of the consumer, to transport that consumer into a world where pain and consequences are just as fictional as the situations, and the consumer suffers not at all. This stands decidedly in opposition to the real world where there are very real consequences to every action and where people are constantly hurt.

But time spent in a fantasy universe, whether it be a book or a film or a painting or a photograph or a play can be fun. It can be entertaining. It can be educational. It can enhance and enrich our daily lives. But, unless we experience a mental slippage, we always know and appreciate the differences between fantasy and reality.

 

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Why that Artist’s Method Won’t Work for You

Wednesday, 10. August 2016 1:03

It seems that almost everyone who is beginning in the arts wants a prepackaged process. This is easily seen in arts classrooms where potential actors, painters, photographers, sculptors, writers eagerly await how-to prescriptions of how to warm up, how to approach the material, how to get results. They are looking for the magic path that will take them from the classroom/studio to producing acclaimed work one project after another.

Acting students have heard, after all, that there is a Method, and if they follow the procedures of The Method, they will certainly produce good work. What they don’t realize is that the method which originated with Stanislavski, has been modified by his innumerable students, so there are now multiple methods, each claiming to be the True Path to great acting. The same is more-or-less true for all the arts. For example, some photographers think that if they follow Ansel’s process, their pictures will rival his; some writers believe that if they use the same methodology as [insert name of famous writer here], their work will be just as good.

And this seeking of the magic process is not limited to novice artists. There is a constant parade of articles, workshops, classes, all telling the seeker what might be wrong with his/her process and why the one that the writer/presenter is offering will make the seeker a better actor, painter, photographer, writer. The fact that the workshops and classes are full and the articles have readers indicates that even practicing artists are still looking for the Holy Grail of artistic process.

The narrator in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance blames this on technology: “Technology presumes there’s just one right way to do things and there never is.” That sentence was published in 1974; it’s an even stronger statement now when technology has pervaded every area of our lives. And his point is well taken; it seems that every piece of technology comes with instructions which imply that there is only one right way to use whatever the tool happens to be. So it becomes ingrained in our thinking. Pirsig’s narrator goes on to say that there are, in fact, an infinite number of ways to do things. He says of a true craftsman or artist: “He isn’t following a set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”

Stella Adler in The Art of Acting says much the same thing. She says, “Mr. Stanislavsky had his Method.” Continuing, she says that what worked for Stanislavsky will not work for contemporary actors simply because they do not live in Stanislavsky’s culture or have his experiences and influences. The proper goal for the actor, she says, is to be independent of The Method, of any instructor, and to reformulate it the actor’s method in his/her own way.

Just as there is no one warm-up that will serve all dancers or actors, or any other performer, there is no one way of approaching whatever our art is. The best we can do is study various methodologies, try them out, and, adopt those techniques that, when we apply them, are not necessarily the easiest for us, but that yield the best results.

Studying the processes of successful artists is one of the ways to acquire ideas that we can adopt or adapt. But we must remember not follow the processes of others blindly, but to pull out those ideas, methods, and procedures that will lead us to our best results. Thus we develop our own working procedures and our own process. And once we have a base process, what we may find is that we will have more success if we modify it, as Pirsig suggests, to fit the material of a given project.  Then we will be masters of our own unique, flexible process, and our work will be the better for it.

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The Case for Quality

Monday, 14. December 2015 1:38

In the last post I used a quote from Penn Jillette’s Every Day is an Atheist Holiday in which Jillette says, paraphrasing Billy West, that there is only one show business, and all artists and performers are in it. In the next couple of sentences he postulates a hierarchy within this one world of arts/entertainment, noting that “a magician has to be a damn sight lower than a poet. We’re above ventriloquists, but not near poets.”

Although this would seem to suggest that there are classifications within art and some sort of hierarchy, nowhere in this book does Jillette offer any criteria for making judgements about which arts go where. He just sets forth the notion that some arts are inherently more valuable than others. As I acknowledged in the last post, “there is art that is more sophisticated than other art. There is art that encompasses what it means to be human in a much more profound way than other art. There is art that is more expensive than other art.” This would suggest that value of a work of art is not a characteristic of the art itself, but is actually assigned by critical audience members.

Taking that into account along with the notion that all arts/entertainment is one thing, we must, when we are making value judgements (rarely done without some sort of comparison or at least an implied comparison) about any art or artist, be sure that we are comparing kumquats with kumquats and not disparate kinds of things. Comparing musical theatre to legit theatre makes no more real sense than comparing stage magicians to ventriloquists.

Likewise, it should be obvious that comparing a sculpture by Praxiteles to a piece of sculpture by John Chamberlain is invalid except in a very restricted academic sense.

To suggest that a straight play is better than a musical just because it is a straight play or that a sculpture by Praxiteles is superior to a sculpture by Chamberlain simply because the Praxiteles work is figurative is the worst kind of snobbery.

And while snobbery is never justified, some people genuinely believe that there is a hierarchy and some arts are more sophisticated, or more profound or just “higher” than others. Others think that there are only subdivisions: ventriloquism and stage magic and poetry and sculpture are all subgenres of the whole arts/entertainment thing, with one subgenre having much the same value as another.

But more important than whether stage magic is superior in some way to ventriloquism is whether the stage magic that is being performed is of quality. It is not a matter of subject matter or where the particular subgenre stands in the hierarchy. It’s about how good it is. There is good stage magic and not-so-good stage magic. There is good ventriloquism and not-so-good ventriloquism. There is good musical theatre and not-so-good musical theatre. There is good legitimate theatre and not-so-good legitimate theatre. There is good pornography and not-so-good pornography. There is good abstract expressionism and not-so-good abstract expressionism. There is good minimalism and not-so-good minimalism. There is good sculpture and not-so-good sculpture.

If we must make distinctions, and we seem to be inclined to do that, then properly those distinctions should not be about the level of the work in terms of subject matter or degree of sophistication or profundity, i.e. the relative “value” of the work. Rather they should be about the quality of the work—and that is a whole other discussion.

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Want to Work? Consider Arts Other than Fine

Sunday, 8. March 2015 22:56

“I want to be a Broadway star,” and “I want my work to be shown at the Tate” are phrases that one hears often from young artists. What those phrases really mean is, “I want to be famous.” That’s a much different thing from “I want to be a great artist.” Being a star in any of the arts requires quite a different set of skills from those required to be a great artist. Sadly, many great artists remain “undiscovered,” precisely due to the lack of those (networking) skills or choosing to work in the wrong branch of the arts.

By “wrong branch” I mean one of the branches that is not considered “fine art” within a contemporary time frame. Those who have studied the history of the arts realize that the division between “fine art” and all the other stuff is fairly modern and completely artificial. This is not to say that everything that is produced within a particular genre has artistic merit; there is some truly atrocious work out there, but there is some very good work as well. This has always been the case; we just have different labels for it.

As mentioned in a post last month, beginning artists in schools, particularly in the visual arts, are cautioned to make their work non-commercial. This is the case with some, but not all, performing arts as well.

As a result of this kind of thinking, we spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to get into this show or that show or this showcase or that showcase or this gallery or that gallery, all so we can take the next step and be accepted in the upper tier: The Armory Show, Art Basel, select off-Broadway theatres, and then be represented by a name gallery and/or agent in New York, London, Miami.

It is my feeling that this approach does a serious disservice to the beginning artist, or any artist for that matter. There are many paths other than “fine” art that will offer satisfying careers, and perhaps, more importantly, an income. Consider poster art, calendar art, book cover art, industrial shows, theme park performance and design, voice acting, advertising art and performance, and commercial arts in general.

And in addition to satisfaction and money, there may be galleries and showcases in those areas that were not available even 20 years ago. For example, there is growing recognition of (and museum/gallery shows and auctions featuring the work of) Maxfield Parrish, Gil Elvgren, Earl Moran, Bunny Yeager, Peter Gowland, Norman Rockwell, Peter Max, and Jack Vettriano. There are now exhibits of pulp book cover art and even graphic art. And with the exhibitions and sales come artistic vindication, a measure of fame, and more money.

So in discussing futures with theatre students, the phrases that are most pleasing are “I just want to work,” or “I want to do good work.” Those statements come from only one type of student—the one who is driven, the one who must do the work in order to survive, the one that art has chosen. Those statements comes from a person whose sole interest is in making art, in creating.

And like those students, we may not be able to find our way directly to London’s West End or MoMA, but regardless of the current “fine art” fad, we can create and show good work that says what we want it to say. And that is worth doing.

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Two More Days

Sunday, 23. February 2014 22:57

When other theatre people ask me how the show is going, my standard response is, “We need another week.” Since I thought that this feeling was unique to educational theatre, I was surprised the other day when I asked a friend who is a professional actor how his show was going. His response was, “We could use two more days.” My takeaway was that no matter what level we work at, we are never quite ready for opening, at least mentally. And, having done this for a number of years, I know that even though the director and most of the production staff wish for another week or two days or however much time they think they need to apply the last bit of polish, the show is really ready, and probably has been for a couple of days. What it really needs is an audience.

The desire for extra time is probably not about a need for perfection, which, as most of us know is an artistic killer. Rather it springs from a desire to make it better. We want dress up our kid, wipe its nose and scrub its face before we show it to the world. We want to make it as good as we can make it, and we are sure that if we had just a few more days, we could do that and go into opening with the confidence that this is as good as we could possibly do.

It’s a function of being creative. Creative people never quit creating. We look at where we are in a particular project and invent six new things that we want to try to move the project forward. It’s a process that does not stop—unless we have some sort of creative block. So even the day before opening, we have new things that we invented overnight that we want to try because they would make the play better, and we know that if we had just two more days or one more week or whatever interval we name, we could add and refine and improve.

The world of theatre, however, does not allow that. Usually, opening is set before we begin rehearsals, so whatever we do has to be done before that date. Even though we might have done this before and know how to maximize productive time, it seems that we always fall “just that much short” of having the time that we need.

Artists in other media have a similar situation, except more often than not, there is no official “opening night,” unless the artist is working toward a deadline for a show. Without such a cut-off, we are likely to continue to develop new facets of our art, never actually finishing, but continuing to make it incrementally better each time we work on it. So we continue to tweak and adjust and improve. It’s a cycle that can continue indefinitely.

We must recognize that, if we are to be genuinely productive, we have to let go. If an “opening night” is not part of our particular art, we would do well to establish one; then we can wrap up this project and move on to the next. But we must realize that with every opening night, whether externally established or self-imposed, comes the feeling that we need just two more days…

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Why Unnatural Light?

Sunday, 22. August 2010 19:58

Well, because no matter how much we strive to reproduce natural light, we can’t. We can barely capture it, and when we do capture it, we then do post-processing of whatever variety on it to “enhance” it, to let the viewer feel rather than see what we felt just before trying to record the moment, or to try to surpass the limitations of the medium in which we are working so that the viewer sees exactly what we saw in the real world.

And in the world of theatre, at least indoor (or night outdoor theatre), and often in photography, there is no such thing as natural light; we spend a good deal of time in trying to create something that approximates natural light in those productions that call for such verisimilitude, knowing all the time that we are using conventions and tricks to “present” rather than reproduce natural light, which we could quite easily do, given that the light was interior evening light. It wouldn’t look very good though; it would look stark and probably shadowy or bright and ugly, which is the way we really light our interiors, and which hardly anybody wants to see on the stage.

In art, it’s not about reality; it’s about perceived reality, or imagined reality, or recreated dream or fantasy, or the communication of feeling or mood or atmosphere or an idea or… (add your own list here). Oh, I know there is the occasional exception, but for the most part we are not interested. While we may find real reality moving, we usually do not find it pleasant, attractive or appealing; we are far more likely to find it uncomfortable, awkward. or annoying. We are looking for something else.

So it occurs to me that it would be an appropriate name for a blog about art, at least from my perspective, and that’s what Unnatural Light is about: my thoughts and questions and musings about art and how and why we produce it, how it affects us or doesn’t. I will hold forth—because I need to, and if you come to read, I will appreciate it, and if you care to comment or question, please do.

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