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The Problem with Comfort Zones

Monday, 7. April 2014 0:11

We all have all have our comfort zones. Such zones can be physical, referring to space, time, environmental condition. They can be psychological, religious, philosophical, or even artistic. Many will debate the pros and cons of remaining a comfort zone in almost all of these areas—except artistic. If we are in an artistic comfort zone, we may soon find ourselves in artistic trouble.

Many of us have gone through several stages of development before finding ourselves in an artistic comfort zone. But once we’re there, we are inclined to stay put. Comfort zones are, by definition, nice places to be. We are without tension, stress, and particularly fear, all things that are said to hinder creativity.

And the absence of tension, stress, and fear is not the total benefit of such a place. In a comfort zone, we are not only lacking those negative things, we feel a positive contentment. What we do is “good enough” and may actually be good. Probably it is not great; probably it is not what it could be if we were to push a little. What it is is comfortable. The art we make there is satisfying in some—or perhaps many ways. It may even be fresh and new. It may be selling. It may not seem to be lacking in any way.

But it is. If we are producing good work and are comfortable with it, what’s wrong with that? Nothing—if that’s what we want to do. The problem is that when we are comfortable, we have a tendency to preserve the status quo because it feels so good. And that feeling good can lead to complacency, and complacency is a danger to any artist who wants to move forward, to say something, to impact his/her audience.

Complacency almost demands that we produce things that are not challenging to us. And if we do nothing challenging, we neither develop nor mature. As an unattributed quote that that I ran across last week says, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” And therein lies the potential trouble.

If we want to grow as artists, if we want to produce work that is better than good, work that is outstanding and amazing and ground-breaking, we will have to move out of that comfort zone.

The question then becomes how to break free of this comfortable prison and produce more meaningful work. The answer is that we force ourselves, and the easiest way to do that is to take on a project that involves risk.

Risk is, of course, the antithesis of comfort. When we risk, we must acknowledge the possibility that we may not succeed. People who are content with being comfortable do not risk, because of the potential of producing something that our audience may not like, and thus the possibility of failure.

Risk is required for growth, and the problem with a comfort zone is that it does not allow that. If we want to make better art, we would do better to invite the possibility of failure which comes with the potential of amazing success than to die the slow sure death of complacency in the comfort zone.

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“It Doesn’t Get Any Easier”

Sunday, 23. March 2014 23:03

That’s a statement that my yoga instructor is fond of making—not during yoga class—but other times when we’re talking about yoga. Having been in the class for about three years, I am forced to agree with him. My experience (and I think that of others) is that every day is a new day and what was easy yesterday might not be today and vice versa.

The same is true for art, I think. Oh, we may learn to use our tools better so that the manipulation of the medium comes more easily. We master brush techniques, learn more about the potential of Photoshop, make a breakthrough in our voice lessons, refine our approach to characterization, Develop new strategies for storytelling. We hone our work habits in order to maximize creativity and output. So in that sense it does get easier.

And, some of the things that we do every time we make art are like things that yoga practitioners do every time they participate in a class. Sometimes they are not only similar, they are exactly the same: staying in the moment, maintaining concentration, focusing on the task at hand. And then come the things that are perhaps not exactly the same, but are very similar: the recognition that today will be different from yesterday and tomorrow, the knowledge that on some days we may not do as well as others, or we may do better. The understanding that today, we might peak in an entirely different place than we have done before. We recognize that our routine, though solidly made and tested over time, may not feel the same today or function exactly the way that it did yesterday.

Additionally, as artists we hopefully keep growing and developing, which means that there is always something new, something untried, something risky. In that sense, what we are doing today is just as hard or harder than it was yesterday, or last week, or last year. Once again we find ourselves going through the pain and insecurity of creating artistic “children” and pushing them out the door and into the world. Once again we try to be sure that the ideas we have are communicated in all of their complexity and nuance, shaping the artifact to be say exactly what we need to say and not just approximating our artistic vision.

The other thing that does not get easier is putting ourselves, our souls, on display in yet another work, exposing our obsessions for the universe to see and being unsure of how they might be received. That was never easy and still isn’t.

And, as in yoga, we are obligated to remind ourselves that we are not really competing—at least during the creative phase of our work, and that it is, in fact, about the journey rather than any specific destination.

What we must recognize is that it that art is hard and really doesn’t get any easier, no many how many times we assume the role of maker. It is a humbling realization. And then we realize that we have chosen or have been chosen to go on this journey and that we must approach today as a unique opportunity to once again test ourselves, our focus, our concentration, our creativity, much the same as if we had entered a yoga studio and unrolled our mats. There’s a reason that it’s called practice.

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Phoning It In

Sunday, 26. January 2014 23:52

We’ve all experienced it at one time or another: a teacher, a student, an actor, a photographer, an artist, a writer—phoning it in. The results are usually not terrible; they’re just not as good as they could be. So phoning it in is something to be avoided, at least in my estimation.

There are a hundred reasons for it, and none of them really matter. What matters is the reduction in quality. When we phone it in, our work may be passable, sometimes even good by certain standards. But it’s not our best.

Because of all the activities in which I am currently engaged (and cannot eliminate), I feel that I am getting very close to phoning in this blog; and that is something I do not want. To avoid that a change is necessary. Rather than just taking some time off as some have advised, this blog will be moving to a bi-weekly publication schedule. How long this will last I am not sure. That will probably depend on how this new schedule fits and functions.

This move is not due to lack of material, rather for lack of time to deal with the material that I have, material that continues to grow on a weekly basis. What is lacking is the time to think it over and allow myself to see connections and patterns and decide what is really worth talking about.

As those of you who have read this blog for a while know, I am a firm believer in artistic discipline, so moving to a longer time frame will still keep my publishing regular but will provide a little more time for thinking and development. I don’t know that the quality will improve, but hopefully it will not diminish.

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Rejection: Part of the Gig

Monday, 20. January 2014 0:19

Acting students learn early on that they must deal with rejection. It’s the result of the way things are done in the world of theatre: eight roles in a play, twenty-four actors auditioning, sixteen actors rejected. It happens every time there is an audition. Actors also learn that the reasons for rejection are manifold and often have very little to do with them personally. The tough ones keep auditioning; the others find another way to live.

Rejection comes to other artists as well, but those other artists, even in theatre, usually have not been taught the way actors have and so have to develop ways to deal with rejection on their own. The alternative is to take a path that leads away from a world filled with rejection.

We all want to be wanted and accepted. Sometimes it seems that we aren’t, or at least our work isn’t. Only the artist him/herself can decide when it’s no longer worth trying. But before you decide that continuing to pursue your artistic dreams isn’t worth the continued rejection, consider this:

As evidenced by these examples, those who connect the artist to the audience are sometimes lacking in foresight, but we still have to deal with their rejection. We may, like Shaw, who became first a critic, then a playwright, change our course slightly. Or, if the work is important to us, we will keep making it and putting it out there, submitting it to the next agent, publisher, producer, juried show, gallery, and the next and the next.

The bottom line is if we want to be artists, we will experience rejection. Therefore, we need to grow thick skins and maintain enough confidence to keep going. Rejection is, after all, part of the gig.

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Best of…

Monday, 13. January 2014 0:30

With the beginning of the year come the inevitable superlative lists of the year past which include lots of things, including the arts. You can find lists of the highest paid musicians, the highest paid visual artists, the most paid for an art work, the best movies, the best songs (in all categories), the best photographs, the best new whatever or whomever. Americans, at least, seem obsessed with “best-of’s.” There are even best of best of lists.

And, of course, most of these lists will evaporate just like New Year’s resolutions and mean about as much. Some will have impact, e.g. when a list of best movies is tied to this or that award, it means more money for the investors and perhaps a larger paycheck for the star on his/her next project. And some will even provide the winner with a plaque or trophy to display.

The impulse to look back and evaluate a past block of time is understandable. What is troubling about at least some of the lists that have been recently published, however, is the “small print,” or more accurately, the invisible print. Some organizations are up-front about what the rules and criteria are. The Academy Awards, for example, have page after page on rules and eligibility. The Golden Globe Awards do not seem as transparent, given the controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s ineligibility this year for her performance in Spike Jonze’s Her.

Many lists come with no apparent rules at all, but it doesn’t take long to discover the bias of the compiler. For instance, many “best photographs of the year” lists have crossed my newsreader screen in the last week and a half. Although some are travel images, most of them are really “best photojournalism of 2013” lists. The notable exception is Rangefinder Magazine, where the editors compiled several lists, and often organized those lists into categories.

There is certainly nothing wrong with photojournalism; it has produced some of the most memorable images ever made. What is wrong, at least in my mind, is to suggest, even by implication, that photojournalism comprises the totality of excellent photography created within a 12-month span.

Aside from the need to summarize the past, I suspect that the impulse to incorporate art works into lists are bragging rights—the ability to be able to claim that the compiler was the first to recognize the worth of a work that becomes iconic at some future date. But some of the most iconic works of art didn’t receive the prizes they were up for. Case in point: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did not win the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The lack of the award did not prevent the play from being one of the best of the twentieth century.

It is certainly a good feeling to appear on a list of winners, whether it is the list of those accepted to a juried show, or the list of those who won an award of some sort or a list of the best whatevers of whatever year.  But it’s not why we do what we do. It is doubtful that Scarlett Johansson took the role in her, thinking she might get a Golden Globe, just as it’s a stretch to believe that Albee sat down to write Virginia Woolf with a Pulitzer in mind. We make our art to say what we have to say in the best way we know how to say it using the best tools we have. Sometimes we make it onto a list; mostly we don’t. That’s just fine.

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Where Are You Going?

Monday, 30. December 2013 0:14

Last week’s post included the sentence, “Few of us end where we were aiming when we set out, and we may find that we’re really glad that we learned to sing somewhere along the way.” Since writing that, I’ve thought about it and decided that maybe it deserves some more discussion.

The fact is that most of us do not end where we were aiming when we set out. This is an idea that can be taken at least two different ways, both of which are, I think, valid. In one sense we do not end at the target we set when we set out on our life or professional journey. In another sense, the work that we create often does not end where we planned for it to go.

In both cases, many of us end up at a place that is far superior to our original target.

The process of making art requires that we leave room for discovery and serendipity as we follow where the process takes us. For example, writer Austin Kleon started making the trailer for his new book with all sorts of plans; however, he soon discovered that there was much to be eliminated and even more to be modified. He says, “I like the idea to change as I’m working.Even if you have to throw half your work out, it’ll lead you to something better.….Let your “mistakes” during the process actually feed back into the idea. Absorb the mistakes into the piece.” The work that results from such an approach has a tendency to be more organic than work that is totally and completely preplanned.

An approach such as Kleon’s, however, does not mean that planning should be dismissed. Many artists, Kleon included, begin with a very firm plan in mind. The trick is to be adaptable and to allow ourselves to be open to new ideas and pathways as they arise.

This is true of our careers as well. The blog Brain Pickings quotes Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbs: “The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.

Again, planning is not to be dismissed. My constant advice to students is for them to decide where they are going. Of course, like almost everyone else, the vast majority will end up somewhere different, but the selection of a target and the movement toward it is hugely important. Otherwise, they have a tendency to go nowhere, in almost every sense of the phrase. Once a goal is targeted, movement starts, and those detours that Watterson mentions happen along the way. Like the accidents in making art, they often lead to more and better opportunities for satisfying work.

Some people do end up where they started to go, and good for them—so long as the work is satisfying. Most of us, however, end in a very different place than the one we imagined when we first started out. Again, the test is not whether we got to our original target, but whether where we got to is fulfilling.

Likewise, if the art that we make is exactly what we imagined when we started, good for us. If, however, we incorporate mistakes and let he idea change as we proceed, then good for us as well. What matters, after all, whether in our professional journey or in making art, is not the initial impetus or whether we stayed on track, but what the journey taught us. It’s called process, and it takes us where it will. We can only benefit.

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Learn to Sing!

Sunday, 22. December 2013 23:01

“I don’t sing” is a statement that I hear all the time from beginning actors. They state it as if it were an option when it’s really the equivalent of an architect saying, “I don’t do math,” or a photographer saying, “I don’t need to know lighting.” Singing is a basic skill of the acting trade just like articulation, stage movement, or the ability to used dialects and accents.

There are a number of reasons students say they don’t sing, but usually they resolve themselves to three: fear, the belief that to learn would be too difficult, and the notion that actors who do not sing are somehow more pure than those who do. This latter derives, of course, from the idea that the musical is an inferior form of theatre. The musical’s position in the theatre hierarchy aside, the fact is that many “straight” shows require that an actor sing. Even voice actors will often find themselves having to sing.

The perception of difficulty often goes unvoiced. Rather, some other excuse is put forward, such as “I can’t.”

Fear needs no explication, except to note that actors, particularly young, untrained ones have a fear of singing equal to or worse than most people’s fear of public speaking.

In any case, the only reasonable response is, “then learn.” Take voice lessons—every week, until you can sing or until the third voice instructor in a row dismisses you as completely hopeless. It may, indeed, be difficult, but certainly not impossible. You may not be able to sing the lead in a musical as the result of lessons, but you can improve vocally and that can only be a good thing.

Additionally, voice lessons not only improve the singing voice, they improve the speaking voice as well, so it’s a double win. And the actor gets to develop two basic skills for the price of one.

“I can’t sing,” when not an excuse, is a different matter. That’s about ability, albeit self-assessed, and for that the answer is the same: learn, and for all of the same reasons. And be aware that many working actors continue to take voice lessons even after they have improved their abilities so that they can, upon request, sing whatever song the role requires.

It’s the same with any art. We will sometimes refuse to learn certain skills or techniques that have the potential for improving our work in some way or another. We tell ourselves that that’s something we “don’t do” or “can’t do.” And we mean exactly the same thing that young actors do: it’s something we are afraid of or something that looks too difficult or something we mistakenly think will dilute the sincerity of our work. So, often in the pose of artistic snobbery, we limit ourselves.

There is no legitimate reason that we should not develop any and every tool we can. As we grow as artists, many of us find ourselves moving in directions that we did not anticipate and those skills we thought “ancillary” become not only useful but necessary.

So it may turn out that the skill that we didn’t want to learn is exactly the skill, perhaps in combination with others, that allows us to create our best work. Few of us end where we were aiming when we set out, and we may find that we’re really glad that we learned to sing somewhere along the way.

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Trash It!

Sunday, 8. December 2013 23:27

There are times in the life of a project when things are not going the way we would like. Every working artist experiences these times. The question is what to do about them. Do we forge ahead? Do we modify our approach? Do we change our technique?

The answer probably depends on the nature of the project and the exact difficulty. Sometimes all it takes to get things moving again is rewriting a sentence or changing a brush. Other times it may mean concentrating a little harder, thinking further ahead of ourselves, doing some more research, editing more severely. In extreme cases, what some consider unthinkable may be the best choice: trashing what we have and starting over. This option is unthinkable only because it requires that we admit that what we have is not good enough and probably cannot be made good enough following the current path. And that’s a form of failure, and most of us don’t want to admit failure as a possibility, even when making that admission, trashing our present effort, and starting over might well be the most efficient way do our best work and complete the project.

Starting over does not mean that we must deal with a different topic, or even have a different approach. It is simply the admission that we need a fresh canvas, metaphorical or literal, on which to bring the project to life.

Michael G. Moye told me once that he knew that he was writing well if he threw away 10 pages for each page he kept. He was not exaggerating; he meant it quite literally. At that time he wrote longhand on legal pads. His approach was a form of severe editing-as-you-go. He would write a page, look at it, and if it was not to his liking, throw it away and begin again. He is a consummate craftsman.

Since most of us don’t have Moye’s discipline, we have difficulty deciding when to crumple the paper and start over and when to just strike out a portion and re-work what’s left. Probably the earlier we make that decision, the more efficient our workflow will become. Instead, most of us put that decision off as long as possible, clinging to the hope that we will be able to make what we have done so far work. Putting it off can have serious implications

For example, I once heard a director, at the end of final dress tell her actors to take a short break and come back because they were going to re-block the first act—of Scapino! For those of you who don’t speak theatre, she was going to change the movement pattern for the first act of one of the most physical shows in the canon on the night before the show opened.  For that director, the prospect of putting what she had seen in rehearsal in front of an audience was more onerous than the pain and effort of re-blocking an entire act. She had waited until the very last possible moment to start over; the result was a very unhappy company going into an opening with a complete lack of confidence.

It takes a long time and a lot of “almosts” before an artwork is actualized. We must be willing to admit that not every attempt is going to make it all the way to the finished piece and that we have to be ready to trash what we have and begin afresh if the situation demands it. Sometimes that is the most efficient and effective way to realize a project.

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They May Not Get It

Monday, 4. November 2013 0:29

Leaving the theatre last Saturday night, I overheard a man saying to the woman beside him, “You can explain it to me later.” And sure enough, in the restaurant next door to the theatre, there they were, very earnestly discussing the play with another couple, and perhaps offering the sought-after explanation. It set me to wondering how many other people in the theatre paid good money for an experience that they didn’t understand.

So I began to question others I knew who had seen the show. One person I talked to did not seem to have seen the same play I did, or at least if he did, he did not understand it in the same way that I did. One person seemed to have relied pretty heavily on program notes. Another was in the same situation as the man I overheard. A fourth had gone to an actor/director talk-back and so knew what they were attempting to do. Yet another saw what I saw and interpreted it much the way I did.

It was not an easy play; it was one of those with layer upon layer of reference and meaning, so I was quite interested to see the production. It did not disappoint. What was a bit discouraging though was the discovery that possibly a significant number of people in the audience really didn’t get it.

It probably should have come as no surprise. In talking to potential collectors about my photographic work, I have learned that they see what they see and don’t see what they don’t see, which many times has exactly nothing to do with what I put into the image. I never argue or point out or any errors in their thinking—I am, after all, in the business of cultivating collectors, not correcting their interpretations.

If your art has any degree of complexity at all, it will go over the heads of some of your audience. Expect it. If it is multi-layered or complex, some of it will likely get missed. They will get what they get and miss what they miss and there’s nothing you can do about it. They may even get stuff you didn’t know was in there. (The unconscious of the artist is a marvelous thing.)

Short of writing a 2500-word “program note” for each piece, you have no way to control the audience’s response, and even then you cannot guarantee it. You have to remember that each person comes to your work with his/her own background, training, prejudices, filters thorough which he/she experiences art and the world. They may even bring their baggage and project it onto your work. So every member of your audience is likely to have a different level of understanding.

Some artists may take this inability to comprehend on a part of the audience as an excuse to dumb down their work so that more people get it, and so improve their chances for more sales. Some will go to the other extreme, as did a director I knew who, upon reading a review that said that his play was difficult to understand, screamed, “Then they should come back and watch it until they understand it!”

Both reactions are certainly understandable, but not, in my estimation, the best choices. A better response to this situation is simply to recognize that it exists and continue but to put forward your best work, with all its layers, complexities, and ambiguities. Some will get it and some won’t. But you can hope that those who do will tell like-minded others and they in turn will tell others, and sooner or later, a tribe supporting your work will develop.

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Daydreaming and Mindfulness

Monday, 28. October 2013 0:28

For all its faults, what struck me about the book I recently finished was how accurately it depicted the goings-on in the mind of the artist. The main character, a painter, would sometimes completely lose track of what was going on around her because she was so involved in daydreaming. She spent a lot of time planning, foreseeing the paintings that she wanted to create.

We all daydream, and many would argue that it is from daydreams that inspiration comes. It is certainly in daydreams that we imagine our creations or discover an insight or recognize a new idea. Many artists find daydreaming useful, perhaps even necessary to doing their work. How else would the image of the new piece of work come if you could not let your mind drift from the here-and-now to other times and places?

The other side of the coin is what is called mindfulness, staying in the present moment. Everywhere you turn in blogosphere, you run into articles about the value of mindfulness to the artist. It’s a topic I have spent some time on myself here and here, and actually work at myself on a daily basis.

The benefits of mindfulness are well known to actors, who must stay in the present if they are to do even passable work. This approach to the world: living in and attending to the present comes up again and again in creativity theory. We must be in the present to create; once we let our minds wander to the past or the future, we have left the moment in which we are actually doing the work. If we happen to be in flow, mindfulness descends upon us as a condition of the state, and we really have no choice. Additionally, there are the psychological benefits associated with mindfulness: loss of anxiety and worry.

The question is how each of these disparate activities fits into the creative life of not just painters or actors, but any artist.

The answer is, of course, balance. We must be able to allow our imaginations to take flight, to travel to those places where new ideas reside or the seeds of new images germinate. Then we must bring those ideas and images into the present. If we stay “away,” we will become those dreamers who never produce, the composers who never write a note, the writers who never commit words to paper or screen. We become imaginers and planners instead of doers. We must go into the worlds of imagination, seize the ideas that we find there, and bring them back to the present where we can develop them.

On the other hand, if we stay only in the present, we can miss some of the wonders that our imaginations can produce. Mindfulness practice says that when ideas intrude, we should acknowledge them and return our attention to the present. This sometimes means that an idea may be lost. And some of those ideas may well deserve to be followed and entertained, not because we are helpless to prevent it, but because down that path lies the next painting or play or sculpture. The trick is to not get so lost in that world that we don’t make it back to this one, but we do need to be able to let our imaginations wander and invent and discover.

As artists, I think, we would do well to take a middle path, perhaps not that philosophical middle path that avoids the extremes, but rather a practical one that encompasses, reconciles and balances the opposing activities of mindfulness and daydreaming and allows us to use all of our potential to create.

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