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New Project, New Beginning

Sunday, 17. January 2021 21:08

Let’s face it, routine can be very comforting, and I have gone on record as being in favor of routines. Many artists praise routines, citing the regularity inherent in a routine as a way to ensure that the work gets done. And I am still of that mind; establishing a daily routine is a sure way to maintain artistic output.

But routine can be more than working at our art at certain times of day. It can also include an approach to the work that we do the same way every time. We develop a way of working and then apply it to all projects as they come along. For example, all of our writing projects might develop along the following pattern: idea, preliminary research, outline, more research, write from beginning to end, edit, proof, publish. And that may work for us—every time. However, it might make all of our writing more or less the same. Some would say that is a good thing, because it leads to stylistic consistency. And that may be true, but it seems to me that once a writer, or photographer or director or actor or composer or choreographer or painter or sculptor has found their voice, that style is going to come through regardless of the artist’s approach to various projects.

A worst case scenario is that by approaching each project the same way, we allow our creativity to take second place to convenience: we know how to do it this way so why consider any other approach? So routine can take us to places that are less than desirable.

How to avoid this problem? First recognize that every new project is just that: a new project which invites at least the consideration of a new methodology. Perhaps if the first step in beginning a new project was looking at the project to determine what approach would work best, we might find what really determined the methodology for each project was the project itself. This would allow us to break out of the “do it the same way” mold and bring the full force of our creativity to the project. The result might be better, more interesting projects.

And that’s one of the wonderful thing about projects: they are all at least a little different, and they all are self-contained, even when they might be related. So taking the time to evaluate the approach for each project might open us to possibilities we would never have imagined if we had stayed in our one-method-fits-all approach.

A couple of artists I know work this way. One is a photographer who says, “Every shoot is the same in that you have to have the equipment ready, but beyond that every shoot is different. The models are different and you’re looking for a different outcome, so you have to approach each shoot differently.” A writer says, “I look at each project differently. Sometimes I write from the beginning to the end; other times I write the core of the piece first, then fill in the rest. The material dictates the approach.”

It’s an approach we might consider adopting: since every project is unique, make the approach to that project unique as well. Every new project can be a new beginning—directed by our creativity.

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Make Your Work Known

Sunday, 3. January 2021 23:11

Some artists are notoriously introverted and reclusive. Emily Dickenson, Vivian Maier, and J.D. Salinger immediately come to mind. These were artists who were concerned almost exclusively with creating rather than selling their work. A number of us follow in their footsteps, so many, in fact, that Austin Kleon felt compelled to write a book called Show Your Work, which he says is a “guide to getting discovered.”

The reasons for our reticence to get our work out there are many. Some of us are simply introverted. Many of us are insecure. A number of us don’t want to take the time or learn the skills required to sell our work. Some of us don’t want to take the time away from away from the process of making work to show our work. Another group of us has entered shows and contests, even won awards, developed web sites, and found that those activities did not materially enlarge our audience—at least in a way that we could see, so we pulled back. A few of us simply lack ambition. There are hundreds of other reasons, but these are the ones that seem to predominate.

So we do our work in isolation, subsisting solely on the rewards of creativity, eschewing discovery. Still, many of us harbor a small wish to be, if not famous, at least to be known to a group outside our family and friends. We would like for our work to be recognized.

And perhaps that’s the key; perhaps that’s a way to get past our own introversion and insecurity: to think of it as not promoting ourselves, but promoting the work. Perhaps if we focus on our work instead of ourselves it will be easier to find the time and the wherewithal to put it out into the world. After all, we know that work has value; we spent hours, days, weeks making, refining, and polishing it. What we don’t know is whether the work has value for other people. And the only way we are ever going to find that out is by putting it out into the world.

And yes, that will take some time, and some effort, but it may well be worth it. We may find that there exists a group of people who appreciate what is that we do, a group of people who are interested not only in what we do but how we do it. And once we find that group, we may be able to figure out how to grow it. And we may find that some in that group are interested in not just seeing but owning some of our work.

And although it will take that time and effort, our work will become known. And we can stay personally introverted if we like because it will be about the work and not about ourselves. Except now there is a larger audience for the work. The only questions that remain are when and where to start. When is easy: now. Where is a more difficult question, given that there is a myriad of venues. One place we might start is with one of those advice books, like Show Your Work. We just need to remember that what we read are suggestions, not rules. We can take what is comfortable and useful and leave the rest. After all, it’s our work that we are showing and we should do it our way.

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Effortless

Sunday, 20. December 2020 21:17

In the 5th edition of American Cinema/American Culture John Belton says that American cinema is essentially a narrative machine that uses “high artifice” to produce work the style and structure of which are “largely invisible.” That invisible machinery delivers narratives “effortlessly and efficiently.” In other words, there is lots and lots of machinery working behind the curtain, but the curtain is never lifted.

Since American film has been remarkably successful from its beginnings to the present, both as popular entertainment and high art, there may be lessons to be learned here. The first is, of course, that to make art good requires high artifice. That is, there needs to be structure, and that structure will contain the expertise and the style of the artist and the time. This suggests that behind the novel there does need to be an outline, at least as a starting point; behind the painting and the photograph there needs to be principles of composition and color; really good music has to be backed by solid music theory. As artists we must know what we are doing and employ the very best practices we can bring to the computer, the easel, the drawing board, the photo session.

The second lesson is that that artifice that we employ should be invisible. The audience should never be aware of the structure of the play or novel, the principles of composition, the theory employed to develop the work of art. We should never allow the audience to be aware of the hours and hours of planning and practicing, of trial and error that went into mixing that particular shade of blue, getting that exact characterization right, finding exactly the right words for the third line of the poem, developing the ending for the essay, the short story, the novel.

Rather, the audience should see a work of art that looks completely effortless, a piece of work that stands alone and communicates its story or meditation or vision in a way that makes the audience completely unaware of the work that went into it. Michelangelo certainly did not want those looking at the Sistine Chapel thinking about him standing on a scaffold to do the painting. While Stephen King sometimes talks about writing, he certainly does not want you thinking about his working methods while reading his latest novel. Anne Brigman did not want her audience to wonder about the darkroom manipulations she used in order to produce the images she made. Martin Scorsese does want the audience to be thinking about the technical aspects of lighting and editing while they are watching his films. All these artists want us to be focused on the content they are presenting, not their methodology.

And this same attitude should be a goal for our own art. No matter how much time, work, and planning we put into the work, what we finally present to our audience should appear completely effortless. We might want to talk about the planning, time, and effort that went into a creation—during the marketing of that work, or perhaps when we are teaching or studying a work. But when showing our work, all of that needs to remain completely invisible to the normal audience member; we need to make it look effortless.

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Recut, Revise, Rearrange

Sunday, 6. December 2020 23:29

In case you missed it, Francis Ford Coppola has recut The GodFather, Part III, renamed it Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, and, after a very limited theatrical run, will release it digitally this week. Coppola said of the revision, “For this version of the finale, I created a new beginning and ending, and rearranged some scenes, shots, and music cues. With these changes and the restored footage and sound, to me, it is a more appropriate conclusion to ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Godfather: Part II’ and I’m thankful to Jim Gianopulos and Paramount for allowing me to revisit it.” Diane Keaton, costar in all three original Godfather films said, “It was one of the best moments of my life to watch it. To me it was a dream come true. I saw the movie in a completely different light. When I saw it way back, it was like ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ It didn’t seem to do that well and the reviews weren’t great. But Francis restructured the beginning and the end and man, I’m telling you it worked.”

This is not the first time Coppola has recut his movies. He has also recut The Cotton Club and made multiple cuts of Apocalypse Now. It’s what happens when an art work is not quite what the artist wants it to be and has the opportunity to revisit their work. As Coppola said of his new cut of The Godfather, Part III, “It was like pulling on the thread of a sweater that annoyed you, and you end up re-knitting the whole sweater.” Coppola is not the only director to recut films; Sir Ridley Scott released five versions on Blade Runner, in addition to the two preview versions which were shown only in 1982.

And these are not the only artists who feel the need to revise. Many artists are dissatisfied with their work, but call it “finished” in order to meet a deadline or fulfill a contract or simply to move on to the next project. There are many reasons for this dissatisfaction, some of which are covered in a post from a few years ago, but there may be few opportunities to revise older work. Coppola seems to think that that has to do with how much clout one has and one’s age. That may well be. One thing that is certain is that as one’s perspective changes, one’s opinion of one’s work also changes.

And that often happens with time: sometimes that can be years; other times it may mean just a week or so.  Time allows the artist to “step away” from the work and look at it with “different eyes.” Successful parts which could be bettered become apparent. Areas which are less successful become obvious. Errors and flaws jump out.

The next step is admitting that, though what one made is good, it could be made better. Then the challenge is having the courage and wherewithal to actually modify the original.  In one respect Coppola is lucky, not only in that he had both, but in that he works in a medium that allows itself to be rearranged and edited, and if one has access to all the negatives, added to. Others, who work in ephemeral arts, such as live theatre or dance do not have this advantage and either have to mount a whole new production or let the notion of revision pass.

The point of all this? We as artists should not be afraid to follow Coppola’s example. We should not be hesitant to revise that which we can revise when we can. It keeps the work alive, at least according to Picasso, who suggests that art works are never done: “To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.” It allows us to make our work better.

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No Small Parts

Monday, 23. November 2020 0:13

Constantine Stanislavski famously said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” And while most directors and acting coaches firmly believe that, most actors, of course, do not. That’s primarily because actors look at the size of the role from an ego perspective; they are counting lines or stage/screen time. Directors, on the other hand, look at the role from a functional point of view, and understand that every role in a well-written show is absolutely necessary, and each contributes to the telling of the story.

Recently I was reminded of this truth when I was watching the second season of the science-fiction series, Counterpoint. One of the lead characters was in a serious predicament and there seemed to be no way out. Suddenly, his secretary, Milla, appeared, provided him with a solution to his problem—that she was the mole everyone was searching for and how he was to handle the situation and then obligingly killed herself with his gun. She, of course, was not the mole, but the problem was solved. Given that this was almost a Deus ex machina, one might question the writing. But the character, played flawlessly by Mirela Burke, was well established; she had appeared in five episodes, often bringing a message or tea or some other secretarial duty. And in the universe of Counterpoint, there is a sleeper agent behind every street sign, just waiting to be activated, so her suddenly becoming an active agent was not all that surprising.

What was significant was that this character, whom most would consider a very minor supporting character, managed in four lines (10 sentences) to turn the plot in a completely different direction and save the character we were worried about. The whole thing took precisely 49 seconds, and she managed to solve the mystery of a missing recording as well. It was amazing. The acting was good. The whole thing worked beautifully.

It served as a reminder of how important the things that most people consider small can be. As in this example, the whole plot pivoted on what most people would consider a “small part.” In most cases, the import of the “small part” does not jump to the fore as it does in this instance, but these roles are important nevertheless. Someone has to serve the wine. Someone must announce the visiting royalty. Someone must give Romeo the poison. Someone has to fall through the ice so George Bailey can save him. The list is endless. Small parts are not just important; they are necessary.

It is the same in many arts. The brush strokes in the clouds on a plein air painting fall into this category; as does the cat in the corner of the photograph; as does that scrap of blue at the right side of the collage; as does the mole on the chin of the witch’s makeup; as does the flourish at the end of the dance routine. How many characters there are in the chorus of a musical matters, as does every detail in the costume of those chorus members. And, just as in the case of the “small part,” small details, those tiny parts of all of the art we create, are not just important; they are essential.

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Relax Your Face

Monday, 9. November 2020 0:11

It’s been a very tough, very tense week—at least around here. Of course, you may be asking, “What week isn’t these days?” And, of course you would be right. Almost every week is tough and tense. It’s difficult to get things done, much less be creative. There are just too many things we can’t control that impact our lives. So the tension builds, and we have very few ways to dispel it.

Some try exercise, thinking that a good workout will relieve not only physical tension but mental tension as well. There is something to be said for that. If a person is both physically and mentally committed to a particular exercise regimen, engaging in that exercise will certainly relax the mind if not the body. Some people practice yoga, which also purports to engage the body and the mind and the spirit, and to some extent it does. Like any other exercise, while a person is doing it, the mind is engaged in the poses and not in the day-to-day worries that plague it. Some people meditate, that is, they focus their concentration on something other than the problems that assault us daily. Meditation is said to relax the body as well as the mind, and so is just as useful for relieving stress as any exercise program, although not perhaps as useful for toning the body.

Those activities, along with a number of others, are really useful for maintaining for general stress control, but they involve time and commitment and may or may not impact the momentary frustrations and pressures that get in the way of our creative work on an hourly basis. We all know that we should just let those things go, but doing that is far more difficult than saying it. Should we rant and vent our frustrations or should we somehow attempt to not let difficulties get to us? Is there some other thing we might try to deal with stress and tension? It turns out that there is: relax your face.

Yes, I know that sounds silly, but it’s not. The first person who ever told me to relax my face was a yoga instructor who was not talking to me specifically, but the whole class. I thought it was silly too—until I tried it. Then I noticed that as I relaxed my face, other tension left my body. I have since heard it from other yoga instructors, who sometimes say, “Soften your face.” It means the same thing: to consciously relax the muscles of the face.

Evidently, we hold tension in our faces, and when we consciously relax those muscles, other muscles in our body respond as well. Personally, relaxing my face also tends to relax my neck and upper shoulders. And it doesn’t take very long at all.

Does it generate as much relaxation as a yoga session or thirty minutes of meditation? No. But it does work, and it is nearly instantaneous. Give it a try. When you are struggling a problem that is causing you stress or tension. Stop. Take a moment and relax your face. It can make a huge difference. Just that little relaxation can make your work a bit easier and sometimes can facilitate creativity by removing that temporary stress block.

Let me know how it works for you.

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A Process of Discovery

Monday, 26. October 2020 0:07

Austin Kleon’s blog post for October 15 is entitled “Art takes you where it wants you to go,” which is a paraphrase of a statement by 93-year-old quilt artist Laverne Brackens.  Kleon goes on to quote other artists:  textile artist and print maker Anni Albers, poet Ciaran Carson, quilt artist Bisa Butler. All say pretty much the same thing, as does Kleon himself. The materials lead the artist, not the other way around.  If you examine the writings of other artists you will find much the same idea repeated over and over.  And it doesn’t matter much which materials an artist is working with.

For example, sculptors in wood or stone must work with the grain of the material if they are not to risk destroying the piece before it is realized. Naturally, working with the grain will require some changes be made in the finished product, so the resultant work is not so much a work of the sculptor’s imagination as it is a cooperative effort of the sculptor and the material.

Actors also often bend to the material. Upon first reading, they may think they know the character and exactly how the lines need to be delivered. However, once those actors delve into serious script analysis and exchange dialog with their colleagues, new readings emerge; the character morphs because of the influences that were not apparent in the first reading. It’s called character “development’ for a reason, and the actor often ends up with a performance that is very different from the one they envisioned when they first picked up the script.

Filmmakers and stage directors have a similar situation. The actors who are cast determine which way a character will go, which, in turn, influences which way the film itself will go. For example, Rebecca Onion writing for Slate.com points out that by casting two very attractive people who are nearly the same age as leads, the producers of the new Rebecca on Netflix have dramatically altered the dynamic between the two main characters from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, and with that single change have altered the meaning and substance of the artifact.  Another issue in film and stage is that the chemistry that does or does not develop among the actors as they work can also influence the outcome of the final product. A good director will often get what they want in terms of a final artifact, but they may have to arrive at it a much different way than they planned.

And of course we are all familiar with Bob Ross’ “happy accidents” in painting. Painters not only have to work with accidents, happy and otherwise, but must deal with the viscosity of the paint, with the surface of the substrate, not to mention humidity and temperature—and the condition of the brushes and knives. So there are a number of factors that can influence the outcome as well as the artist’s intention.

Almost all photographers will acknowledge the contribution of a good model to the outcome of a shoot. Sometimes, the photographer not only gets what they want but many other excellent images as well—all because of the ideas that the model brings to the shoot. Sometimes the best images are completely unexpected and are the direct result of collaboration between model and photographer.

Writers, whether they are poets, writers of fiction, or non-fiction authors consistently talk about how they think they know where they are going, but the words lead them in a different direction, and the stories, and essays and articles turn out differently than their creators originally imagined. The written work becomes organic and takes on a life of its own. The writer sometimes just keeps putting words down to find out where they are going.

Most artists, regardless of the medium in which they work, agree that when the artist listens to the material, the results are far better than when the writer tries to force their will on the material. That’s because the creative process is not what many people think it is; rather, the creative process is really a process of discovery.

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Take Care of Yourself

Sunday, 27. September 2020 23:34

You can’t make art if you don’t. It’s just that simple. But it’s hard, because those of us who are still hunkering down and being careful are working very hard at avoiding risk. That leads us to stay home, which is normally a good thing these days. But self-care demands that we break our pandemic routines.

  • Make and keep your dental appointments. Making art is difficult enough. Making art with a toothache may be close to impossible. Every dentist I know of has strict COVID protocols, so they are among some of the safest places you can go.
  • Keep your appointment with your optometrist or ophthalmologist. While it’s true that some artists, such as Claude Monet have worked with clouded vision, that is far from an ideal situation. For almost every art, our eyes are important; see a vision professional regularly, even in a pandemic. They too have rigid COVID protocols in place.
  • See a medical doctor when you need to. You may not even have to actually go into a clinic for an office visit; now there are phone, video, and e-consultations that can take care of a number of problems, and you don’t have to leave the safety and comfort of your home. And when office visits are required, most clinics have procedures to not only keep us safe, but the doctors we are seeing as well.
  • Along with seeing a medical doctor, avoid putting off necessary surgery. There are whole areas of hospitals that COVID has not penetrated. Operating rooms are among them. Conditions requiring surgery do not usually get better by themselves. We need to do what is necessary to restore our health.
  • Take care of your mental health. Most of us have pandemic fatigue at the very least, with any number of anxieties added on. We have to take time to restore our mental health so we can let our creativity work. In an earlier post, I suggested several things that might improve our mental health. Here they are again:
    • Rest. The stress of our current situation is unrelenting. Sleep in. Take a nap. Disengage. Allow your mind to settle. It will improve both your creativity and your productivity.
    • Take some time for yourself. Along with resting, take some time to do some of the things you haven’t had time to do. That time may involve doing nothing. It may also involve any number of things that you consider enjoyable that you haven’t taken the time for.
    • Watch a movie. Streaming services up and running and will show you virtually anything that you want to see 24/7.
    • Stop and listen to some music. Not background music. Actually stop and listen and enjoy some music Well, now you have the time. It will enrich you in ways you can’t even think about until you do it.
    • Go outside. Let the sun shine on you. Enjoy the grass and flowers and birds. It’s refreshing both physically and mentally, and something we don’t do often enough.

These are just a few things we can do to take care of ourselves, and in doing that we cannot but improve our creativity and our productivity—which, after all, is one of our goals as artists.

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Is It Worth the Trouble?

Monday, 14. September 2020 0:08

A friend of mine is a cold brew fanatic. For every pot he grinds the beans, measures the amount of ground coffee on a scale, and precisely measures the filtered water. And then he waits. Exactly 13 hours later, he drains the coffee concentrate and bottles it for the coming week. Recently we were discussing coffee and the subject of a certain coffee that he likes came up. “I don’t drink that anymore,” he said. When I asked why, he said that it was just “not worth the trouble.” It seems that that particular coffee causes problems for the grinder, which has to be stopped and started and unclogged repeatedly just to get enough coffee to make a pot.

Some of us are feeling that way about our art these days. In the last post, I mentioned some of the difficulties that photographers and theatre artists encounter when they try to pivot to a different way of doing things. Sometimes that new way of doing things comes with a very steep learning curve in addition to the unexpected difficulties. And then, the results are never quite what we had hoped for. The whole experience can be full of anxiety and frustration, and that leads some of us to ask whether what we are doing is actually worth the trouble.

Of course, some of us will answer loudly and immediately, “Yes!” Those are the ones who feel that because it’s art, it’s worth any amount of trouble. All that matters is producing, and circumstances be damned. Others of us might take a more measured approach. There have been, and probably always will be, projects that won’t be under-taken regardless of the external conditions. Those are the projects that are too big for the budget or that are too difficult because of their conceptual requirements. It may be that a project is completely beyond our capabilities. In the past when those cases came up, we would move on to other projects that were—because of their lesser cost or complication or requirements—doable. And we didn’t think less of ourselves for that.

So perhaps when it seems impossible for us to embrace an entirely new methodology and/or a completely new medium, we might want to cut ourselves some slack. Change is often difficult and always stressful, and a forced changed without a modification in schedule can be unmanageably problematic. So we might want to consider altering the schedule or the scope or the range of our work. We might want to find ways to make the situation into a workable one, or we may decide it’s just not worth the trouble.

Making art under the best of conditions is hard, but making art under extraordinary conditions we are experiencing in the US today is doubly difficult. Sometimes it does become a choice between bearing up under crushing stress or, as noted above, figuring out a way to make the situation more workable and thus more tolerable. And, of course, there’s always the third choice: declaring that it’s not worth the trouble and walking away. And we may find that we have different responses to different projects. Ultimately, however, which of these three paths we take will, as always, depend on each individual project and each individual artist.

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Pivot

Tuesday, 1. September 2020 0:04

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us thus far, it’s that things are not going to go right. And it’s not just the things that we expect to go wrong; it’s things we didn’t even see coming. No matter what art we are engaged in, we have to be ready to pivot. Some would say that this is just a variation on Bobby Shaftoe’s advice to “display adaptability,” but it’s more than that, or at least it seems that way. Things change and plans fail at a dizzying speed these days. Not only do we have to plan for normal contingencies, but we must plan for the extra-ordinary, and we must be able to do it quickly.

And sometimes that requires a whole new way of thinking, primarily because many of us are now working in uncharted territory. Even artists who are used to working alone are denied their normal in-person social network, or if they still enjoy that luxury, it is changed by the necessity for masks and social distancing. Things are even more difficult for collaborative artists. In addition to normal preparation, photo shoots, for example, now require immense preparation for health and safety reasons. This may include considerations that impact the work, such as lens choice, allowing the model their safe space and still getting the work done—so the pandemic influences the art, perhaps in subtle ways, but the influence is there nonetheless. Other choices for shoots are little better, risking the safety and health of photographers, models, and assistants, or postponing the shoot until who-knows when.

Theatre, perhaps the most collaborative of the arts, brings in a whole new set of issues that can overwhelm the savviest of producing organization. First is the choice of whether to attempt some sort of live performance with not only socially-distanced performers, but a socially-distanced audience as well. Most of us realized that this is not a practical solution. Then we pivot to some sort of virtual performance. And that brings with it a whole host of new considerations and problems. It begins with securing virtual performance rights. Since the agents who control the rights to live performances were, before April of this year, not in the business of granting streaming rights, they have had to pivot to incorporate that into their businesses. Because the process is new and because it requires decisions to be made out-of-house, it can sometimes delay a decision on rights acquisition for weeks.

Then there are the technical considerations: what platform or what combinations of platforms are the best for presenting theatrical fare like we have never done before? For many of us who have worked long in live theatre, there is much to learn—just in order to know what to try and what to reject. Sometimes, the most desirable approaches must be rejected because there is no way to employ them without exposing the performers and technicians to danger. And even after those choices are made, there are difficulties that come up for which we are not prepared: there seems to be no end to connectivity issues and timing problems and scheduling difficulties—because everyone involved in the production is dealing with all of those issues in their own lives, issues that are extra-ordinary, even after months of self-quarantining and coming to terms with the new facts of life.

So we have to be ready for nearly any eventuality—all the time—which means that we must be twice as prepared as we normally are, and prepared for brand new twists and turns. And yes, it can be immensely stressful. But art is what we do, so we, like any good basketball player, must be ready to pivot—sometimes with no notice at all.

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