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What Artists Should Really Be Asking

Monday, 25. July 2016 0:16

In the Afterword to the audiobook version of his novel, NOS4A2, Joe Hill, who describes himself as “a guy who prizes the imagination above all other personality traits,” says that he thinks that:

Everybody actually lives in two worlds. There’s the world of stuff, of coffee in the morning and bad jobs and bad hair and work and physics and chemistry. And that’s what we think of as life. That’s the world you live in. But I actually think that people spend as much time spends as much time in the world of thought. And in the world of thought emotions are as powerful and as real as gravity. And imagination is as powerful as physical law. And that world also really and truly exists. You could even make a philosophical argument that that world exists for us more than the real world.

Hill goes on to discuss how “a good reader can make a good book that much better.” He singles out Kate Mulgrew and Wolfram Kandinsky, of whom Hill says, “That was a voice that spoke to the deepest parts of my imagination.”

We in the arts are used to concerning ourselves with imagination, but usually only from the creation sided of things. We use our imaginations to create worlds that do not exist in physical reality. We use our imaginations to fantasize over what might be. We use our imaginations to foresee what shapes our artifacts might take.

What we don’t do is concern ourselves so much with our audience’s imaginations. Note the last quote from Hill. What made certain audio books come alive for him was that the voice that read them “spoke to the deepest parts of his imagination.” Suddenly, we have two imaginations working on the same piece, in this case an audiobook. We have, if you will, one imagination (that of the author) engaging the imagination of (in this case) the listener through the medium of the reader.

As a long-time listener to audiobooks, I can confirm Hill’s assertion that “a good reader can make a good book that much better.” Until I heard Hill’s comments, it did not occur to me to question why some readers make the book really come to life and others just get through it, why anything Frank Mueller read was golden. And now I know. Mueller and the other readers that I really appreciate are the ones who have spoken to my imagination, not just my ears.

And then it occurred to me that that is exactly what we, as artists, should be doing: speaking not just to our audience members’ ears and eyes, but rather speaking to our audience members’ imaginations, engaging those imaginations. Too often we use our own imaginations to create art that does not engage the imagination of the viewers. We create and throw it out there, and the audience acknowledges it, but doesn’t take it home. There are a number of reasons for this, but one certainly is that we failed to engage the audience member’s imagination.

It is only by engaging our audience’s imaginations that we can actually communicate with them, create something that has real meaning for them, make something that really impacts their lives. Otherwise, what we create may appear to them pretty or interesting or even intellectually stimulating. But it will not impact them in the emotional, visceral way that many of us want our art to communicate. So the question we should be asking ourselves is not “how can I communicate my vision to my audience?” but rather “how can I make my vision engage my audience’s imagination?” The answer can only lead to making our art more than it is.

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Creative Entrepreneurship: the Implications

Monday, 2. May 2016 0:12

In his article The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur” in The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz details what he sees as the implications of the latest art marketing paradigm. Some of these are direct interaction between artist and collector, artist diversification and versatility, and others that do not seem onerous. However, he decries a number of potential implications for arts and artists, including the following:

  • Works of art will become commodities, consumer goods.
  • There will no longer be an audience, but rather a customer base.
  • Art will become more like entertainment, less like art: familiar, formulaic, user-friendly.
  • It will be “the age of the customer, who is always right.”
  • Work that is “safer will be favored.”
  • “The measure of merit will be the best seller list.”
  • The artist will be “only as good as his/her last sales quarter.”
  • Artists will “spend more time trying to figure out what customers wants rather than what they want to say.”
  • Aesthetic judgment will be reconfigured because ratings and reviews render everyone’s opinion equal. Taste will be democratized; there will be no more gatekeepers. This will mean that no one can tell an artist his/her work is bad.
  • Breadth will displace depth.
  • As “winds of market forces blow the artist here or there,” artistic interests and directions will shift; there will “no climactic masterwork of deep maturity.”
  • Art itself may disappear, replaced by craft; artisans will replace artists.
  • “A vessel for our inner life” will be lost.

While some of these implications of the new art marketing paradigm don’t sound so bad—at least to me (the resurgence of craft and the artisan, for example), on the whole it sounds pretty awful. Art as we know it will disappear. Except it won’t. What Deresiewicz fails to recognize is that we have been living with this paradigm for some time now with not too many ill effects.

This “new” paradigm is nothing more or less than the Hollywood paradigm applied to other arts. This has been the working paradigm for the production and marketing of American film (and to some extent American theatre) for a hundred years. The results have not been devastating; American cinematic art still exists.

Yes, the majority of films are strictly commercial. After all, from its inception, the movie industry in this country has been about making money. This has led to some copy-cat work, an endless number of uninspired sequels, and formulaic movies that are only a little more imaginative than a daily work schedule. And all but a few are made with consummate craftsmanship by true artisans.

But then there are those artisans who aspire to do better, who are willing to take a risk on a film that is out of the mainstream, a film that is indeed “a vessel for inner life.” There is, it seems, in every generation of filmmakers, two or three directors who are not motivated by money. Oh, to be sure they have to be sufficiently entrepreneurial to raise enough capital to actually make the movie, and there is an expectation that the resulting film will not be a financial loss, even if it doesn’t generate $100 million and action-figure sales. Still, these directors, these artists, produce exceptional work within this paradigm.

And a paradigm that can give us the work of Chaplin, Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Eastwood, Kubrick cannot be all that bad. It’s not that it’s a dreadful paradigm; it’s that it’s a paradigm different than the one we’d planned on.  Perhaps we, as artists, should stop wringing our hands over the terrible state of art marketing and instead concentrate on the opportunities that a new paradigm brings.

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A New Paradigm: the Creative Entrepreneur

Monday, 18. April 2016 1:40

In his article The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur” in The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz makes a statement that echoes one in the last post: “Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.” That established, he goes on to say that the new paradigm for those in the arts is the “creative entrepreneur.”

Deresiewicz  details the previous paradigms for art:

  1. Artisans who were master makers and who were financed by patrons. This paradigm existed in one form or another until the late 18th/early 19th
  2. The solitary genius became the paradigm for artists during the Romantic period. This view of the artist also brought us “Art for art’s sake” and Gesamtkunstwerk. The artist was a cultural aristocrat, a rock star of the period, not bound by rules that governed other mortals. It’s an idea that that still has some currency.
  3. The artist as professional appeared in the mid-20th By that time, art had become something of a religion and “in America especially, art, like all religions as they age, became institutionalized.” This, of course, led to museums, opera, ballet, and theatre companies, arts councils, funding bodies, educational programs. Artists acquired the trappings of professionalism: professional degrees, professional positions (usually in higher education), awards, fellowships, credentials.

Deresiewicz says something that artists are loathe to admit: the paradigm of the artist is based on the market of the period. And the market has changed considerably since the middle of the 20th century. In the early 21st century the most successful marketing is done by entrepreneurs using the internet and the cell phone—bypassing 20th century institutions and marketing directly to consumers. It has happened with commodity merchandise, music, video, gaming, and now art. “Audience” has become “customer base. “

There are a number of implications to this model which Deresiewicz points out. I find that I cannot agree with all of his conclusions, particularly the most dismal, but I appreciate his bringing them to our attention (and will discuss them in the next post).

The real problem is the artist’s application of this information. If he/she is no longer institutionalized and can no longer can count on a job, entrepreneurship is the best available alternative. Each artist must do what Hazel Dooney was advocating several years ago: bypass gatekeeping institutions and market directly to his/her audience.

The push toward entrepreneurship demands that artist know something about marketing, thus the “proliferation of dual M.B.A./M.F.A programs.” Coupled with the idea that we, in our careers, will have five or six jobs perhaps in multiple fields, artistic entrepreneurship strongly suggests that the artist must be literate in multiple platforms. And this is just within the art world. (The always-suspect “day job” is not considered here.)

This sort of thing is already going on, of course. An Equity actor I know, in addition to acting, is an author and a poet, and teaches—mostly workshops, some connected with cultural arts organizations and some self-booked. He also does anime voice acting and has done set construction from time to time. He works primarily in the arts, but in very different aspects of the arts.

Likewise, photographers often expand their practices to include not only weddings, but also senior photography, infant photography, portraits, boudoir, industrial, headshots, even pet portraiture, all of which used to be strict specializations.

Artists of all stripes are marketing and selling on the internet, either through their own web sites of through one of the hundreds of arts market websites such as Etsy, RedBubble, and FineArtsAmerica.

While I’m not sure that I like the term “creative entrepreneur,” the idea does seem to be appropriate to the world in which we live. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to deal with it. And in dealing with it, we can either fight the paradigm or embrace it. I rather suspect that our survival as artists depends on our embracing it. Just how we interact with this new way of doing things, however, can be just as individual as our art.


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Artistic Ineptitude

Sunday, 6. March 2016 23:42

One expects ineptitude from students: actors who don’t yet have the experience to make good artistic choices; sculptors who are lacking a firm grip on the concept of the piece, painters who are just beginning to work out their technique, musicians whose technical skills are not fully developed. That’s perfectly fine. Although they would probably resent the label, these are artists-in-the-making. Their skills are not fully developed and their knowledge and experience are limited. Thus ineptitude.

People who are professionals, however, are a different story; one expects—well—professionalism. Some professional artists are able to jump from art to art and exhibit capability in several areas. Others, however, cannot make this sort of jump gracefully. James Franco, for example, an actor of some repute, evidently thinks he can excel at any art. Unfortunately, he has not found the same success in several fields that he has found in acting. This is evidenced by the title of Charlotte Runcie’s review of Franco’s poetry: “James Franco’s poems: hard to forgive.” In reviewing some of Franco’s attempts in areas other than acting, Runcie quotes New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who called him “embarrassingly clueless about art.

Occasionally, the ineptitude is in the artist’s primary field. Some of the most egregious examples of photographic ineptitude to be found on the web are displayed on a site called youarenotaphotographer.com, created by two people calling themselves Ginger and Mary Anne.

One doesn’t have to look far to find artistic ineptitude. For instance, I had the misfortune once to act as consultant to one of the inept. I found the experience more than a little frustrating. He refused to listen to most of what I had to say, picking up just the bits that supported what he had already decided. The notion of actually learning anything that would have improved the production was completely foreign to him.

The resulting event was, at least by my standards, a complete bust. It was disorganized, badly produced, and exhibited a complete lack of understanding of the audience. It was boring not only to me but everyone in our party, some of whom were young and relatively inexperienced. The sad part was that it didn’t have to be. Had the “producer” listened to any of the several advisors who were available, he could have learned a little about producing and directing. He was not interested. He was certain—without any sort of training—that he was qualified to produce, direct, choreograph, design lights and sound as well as curate visual art. Alas, his lack of training showed.

The problem is not the lack of available of expertise, but the refusal to access that expertise—for one of two reasons: (2) the person who is inept is lacking the self-knowledge to understand that he/she needs the help of a trained professional and/or (2) simple hubris.

Let me be clear, I am all for anyone attempting to do anything. I am a firm believer in the human ability to learn and create in any number of fields, with or without formal training. However, to attempt to work in a field armed only with intuition and with no attempt to learn is foolish. Then to do really sub-standard work and have the temerity charge money for it requires egoism that borders on narcissism. The antidote? Learn who you are. Learn where your excellence lies. Do that. Learn other stuff. Become excellent at that. Do that too. Disavow ineptitude.

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The Necessity of Fantasy

Monday, 25. January 2016 0:00

There’s a guy I know, a vociferous reader, who refuses to read anything that could be considered fantasy. “Not realistic,” he says. He reads mysteries, detective stories, lawyer novels, not seeming to realize that those books he is calling realistic are every bit as fanciful as those written by Anne Rice or Stephen King or Margaret Atwood or George Orwell. (Although in Orwell’s case, one might argue that his books are not fantasy at all, but rather prophesy.)

Those of us who work in theatre are told from the very beginning that stage dialogue is not realistic speech. If well written, it has verisimilitude, but it is stripped down, shaped, and refined to support the action of the play. We accept this. We know that film is not reality; in fact at least one text on the subject says that since the digitization of the motion picture, all movies are fantasy and live action just one of the subsets of animation.

It’s all make believe. We know that the characters in movies don’t really die; neither do the protagonists of novels. Equally unreal is the person who is held captive in a graphic novel, or experiences a life-threatening situation in a staged photograph. At the same time, this make believe, or imagination, if you will, allows us to teach, learn, show, tell, explore, reveal in ways that would be impossible without a flight of imagination.

Fantasy is often denigrated for two reasons: first, some feel that it is unworthy of genuine consideration in the art world simply on the basis of subject matter. For many it means dragons and magic and monsters and things that are impossible—at least on this plane of existence and therefore could never contribute anything meaningful to “serious” art.

The second reason has to do the sociological and psychological implications of some fantasy art: violent video games and pornography, just to mention the two most talked-about examples. No one, it seems, actually knows the effects of interacting with these works: some say that participating in these fantasies short-circuits any need to act out in reality; others say the opposite, that exposure to these fantasies actually encourage that acting-out of similar activities in the real world. Regardless, all seem to agree that such fantasy art has a significant impact on its audience. Were the subject matter different, many would say that such impact marks such art works as highly successful.

However, fantasy does not necessarily mean the extremes noted above, or even magic and supernatural. It can merely mean a flight of fancy, or simply “imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.”

Without fantasy, art is exactly like life—with all the irrelevancies, distractions, mundane details that do not contribute to the message or the appeal of the piece. It becomes the same boring stuff that we live through every day rather than the instructive, insightful, beautiful thing that it is.

Without fantasy we would be left with only non-fiction, and reproductive visual art, exclusively naturalistic performing art (if performance can really be naturalistic). The art world would be very barren indeed. When we stop and think about it, it seems that imagination and fantasy are actually the foundations of art, certainly what allow it to grow and flower.

Regardless what detractors may say, fantasy in varying degrees greatly enriches our lives through art. In fact, without fantasy, we have no art. Period. Given that, fantasy may be something we want to reconsider and embrace.

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It has to Resonate

Monday, 11. January 2016 0:59

Sometimes a particular movie or book or painting or sculpture or live stage production will speak to us. There is no immediate explanation of why this happens, but it does. I used to say that in some way those pieces allowed a glimpse of some sort of universal truth. I have since learned that the same pieces that speak to me leave others cold, so perhaps the truth is not so universal after all.

This has nothing to do with whether the piece of art in question is considered “great art” or not. In some cases it is a masterwork and in others it is a “cult” work, and in others it is some obscure piece that no one has heard of. I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but I rather suspect it is.

And it does not have to be the whole piece; sometimes it’s just a single scene or even a single line. In the case of visual piece, it could be a small detail or a juxtaposition of visual ideas. There is no way to predict what element might reach out and grab my (or anyone else’s) psyche. But it happens; some works of art resonate and some do not. And that’s really the only thing to call it: resonation.

Nobody seems to know exactly why or how it happens. In speaking of the cult status of the movie Nomads, Lesley-Anne Down says that it was not a “popular movie” but one that appealed to those with “strange minds” who were not interested in the predictable. The implication is, of course, that certain pieces appeal to those with certain mind-sets. Perhaps that is true.

Even though there is no real predictability in terms of what will resonate, the work of particular painters, writers, sculptors, photographers, choreographers touch me repeatedly and the work or others do not. Again, I suspect this is true for others. Whatever the reason, it seems fairly consistent.

And if whatever “truth” an artist presents resonates with a small group of like-minded people, there may be a “cult following,” as in the case of Nomads. If there is a larger group, the work becomes “popular.” If there is an even larger group, it can become a “classic.”

And beyond classic are those artists who become immortal by speaking to multiple generations across space and time. These artists have presented something in their work that continues to communicate, to resonate, long after they have passed from the scene.

What that something is that continues to resonate with such a far-removed audience is the stuff of academic monographs and seminar discussions. The fact is that nobody quite knows. All we know is that Shakespeare and Van Gough and Praxiteles and Beethoven and Walker Evans continue to move and inspire us today. When asked, all we can say is, “the work resonates with us.”

What we do know is that resonance is not something that can be planned. Marketers spend millions attempting to do that and still fail. The best that we can do is put as much truth as we can—perhaps that same sort of truth we recognize in works that resonate with us—into our own work and hope that our truth will resonate with others who encounter our art.

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It Took an External Nudge

Sunday, 1. November 2015 23:36

Many of us have multiple to-do lists. Mine consist of day-job lists, theatre lists, photography lists, household chores lists, shopping lists, and others. Needless to say, many of the tasks fail to get done in a timely manner and continue to occupy a place on the list—sometimes for weeks or months. Periodic reviews always result in the same “Oh yeah, that.” And “I need to get to that.” And they continue to occupy a place on the list while newer, more pressing matters get take precedence.

Then something happens and that item soars to the top of the list. Recently I had such an incident. One item on my list was “finish web site.” The project was a complete makeover of my photography site, which, as the to-do item indicated, had not been finished. The major changes were complete and what was left was tedious and time-consuming and not very interesting. So it got put off.

Then early last week I got a text from a friend telling me that she had shown some of my work to a person who came with an impressive set of credentials and who had indicated sufficient interest that she was planning to look at the website later and that she might get in touch with me. Photography inquires had been slow, so this lifted my spirits considerably. Then I remembered that item on my photography list. Quickly I grabbed the nearest device, my iPhone, to check the site—I wasn’t sure exactly where I was in the process of updating. The first thing I saw on the opening page of the mobile version of the site was an error that I had not known was there.

As soon as I could, I sat down at my desktop and began to find and fix first errors and then obvious unfinished work. In just a few hours, I had the site looking pretty good. The errors that had shocked me were repaired in all versions of the site. A couple of galleries had been activated, and some images had been resized. It no longer looked broken or incomplete.

But it wasn’t finished. As I had worked to fix things, I discovered other things that I wanted to tweak—and I will, but at a less urgent pace. The item is still on the list, but it’s priority has shifted because I became aware of what I should have known already—that the web site is all some people know of my work, and, more importantly, I never know who might be looking at it at any time, so it needs to look as good as possible—all the time.

The larger lesson is that an artist should not have to wait for an external nudge to do what needs doing. We teach and are taught that we must learn to create without external validation, that we must be able to evaluate the quality of our own work without waiting for outside praise or criticism. The same thing applies to putting our work out there. Another friend of mine holds that art demands an audience. Given that, we must motivate ourselves to let our potential audience see our best work presented in the best possible way. And we must keep current; we must make it a practice to nudge ourselves.

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Sometimes You Fail

Monday, 19. October 2015 1:12

Failure is, in fact, part of creative life, and it actually does happen. Sometimes it blindsides you, and sometimes you see it coming at you like a locomotive. If the latter, you take what measures you can to avert what you think is sure to be a disaster, but sometimes those measures fail as well.

And you know all the maxims about creative activity and failure (see previous writings here, here and here) and you are prepared and you know it’s not the end of the world or anything like that; it’s just part of the creative cycle: sometimes you miss the target. It happens. But maxims are cold comfort when it’s a real failure in the real world, not just something you say, hoping it will never happen or some abstract thing in a blog essay on creativity.

And sometimes, it happens in public. It’s commissioned work with a deadline; it’s a scheduled performance; it’s an advertised opening. If you see it coming, you spend some time planning how to lower expectations in the eyes of those who will surely see the completed project, even while you are still trying to turn the impending train wreck into a near-miss. And you discover very quickly that while private failure is never a pleasant thing, failure in any kind of public situation is deeply humbling experience.

And ironically, some of those times you fail in a public forum, nobody knows. The client, the audience, the patrons look at your work and judge it fine. It’s baffling, and surprising. And it’s not, at least in the eyes of your audience, the catastrophe you thought it was; on the contrary, they like it. Some even like it a lot. And then there come those moments of confusion before it dawns on you that not everybody’s taste is your taste; not everybody’s standards are your standards. (And thank the universe for that.)

But still, it takes a little getting used to. Hopefully, you recognize that the real danger here is not that of failing, or risking, or any of those things with which creatives must come to terms. The danger here is far more insidious. It is the danger of adopting your audience’s taste and standards. And there is that temptation. You have moments when you think, “Well, if they can’t tell the difference, why am I ripping my metaphorical hair out to make this piece the best it can be?”

If you’re lucky and thinking properly, those thoughts last only a moment. Then you realize that the risks you are taking and the standards that you impose upon yourself and the demands that your work meet those standards are the reason that the audience really likes what, in your opinion, is less than mediocre. Once you get past that hurdle, you can restore some balance to your artistic world.

And once that balance is restored, you can accept your failure and move on. This is not to suggest that you welcome failure, just that you are grounded and mature enough to recognize that it’s part of the package. Any genuine risk carries with it the potential for failure; otherwise, it isn’t really a risk. And if you aren’t really risking, you aren’t really creating.

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Honing Your Edgy

Monday, 10. August 2015 0:12

Edgy, in terms of art, is one of those words that fall into the I-can’t-define-it-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it categories. Since the term has come up in conversation recently, I thought I would seek some definitions. Here are a few: “new and unusual in a way that is likely to make some people uncomfortable;” “Applied to books, music, or even haircuts which tend to challenge societal norms and reveal the dark side. Cutting edge;” “things, behaviors or trends which are provocative or avant-garde.Edgy seems to have connotations that go further than those associated with cutting edge, generally defined as “forefront; lead.”

Both Charles Bukowski and Edward Albee have been called edgy, and both have earned that label. Albee has always exceeded contemporary norms for playwriting. When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hit the stage in 1962, much of the talk was about how edgy it was; when it was released as a film in 1966, it was considered to be “pushing the envelope both in terms of language and content.” When the play was revived on Broadway in 2005, some of the language was updated, e.g. “Screw you!” changed to “Fuck you!”—probably to reflect the times and keep the play as edgy as it could be 43 years after it was initially performed.

Bukowski, so far as I can determine, did nothing that was not edgy. In fact, edginess seems to have informed almost everything he thought or said publicly. For example:

When you flip the pages, nothing but butterflies, near bloodless butterflies. I am actually shocked when I go through this magazine because nothing is happening. And I guess that’s what they think a poem is. Say, something not happening. A neat lined something, so subtle you can’t even feel it. This makes the whole thing intelligent art. Balls! The only thing intelligent about a good art is if it shakes you alive, otherwise it’s hokum.

Bukowski was talking about poetry in a magazine he had run across, but he could have been talking about any form of art. While Albee is much more reserved in the advice he offers, Bukowski encourages, almost demands that artists be edgy: “Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick…We must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary.”

So what, if anything, does that mean to the individual artist? An artist certainly does not have to produce edgy work. An artist can produce work with very round edges if he/she wants. Some would say that Thomas Kinkade did exactly that and made a great deal of money in the process. Again, such an approach is not limited to painting or poetry or any particular medium; it rather is a philosophy of what art is really about and what it should do.

If an artist decides that he/she agrees with Bukowski and really wants to produce work that will be avant-garde, provocative and perhaps dark, it is certainly his/her prerogative. The trouble is that when the artist steps completely out of the safe zone and goes too far, he/she can lose any potential audience. And that is a risk some artists are willing to take. But if an artist wants to produce edgy work and still have an audience, then he/she will have to produce work that goes almost too far.

Deciding how far to go and still produce honest work can be challenging, but worthwhile. For example, in the past my photographic work has tended toward the subtle; recently I have begun to experiment with edgy. Whether these experiments will alter my overall body of work remains to be seen, but I have certainly found the experience valuable. Based on that, I would encourage you to give  a try, or at least think about giving it a try. Of course, the most difficult part will be deciding how far to go and exactly where the line is between too far and not far enough.edgy

Good luck.

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The Modern Audience: Two Approaches

Monday, 1. June 2015 0:05

Much has been written about the place of live theatre in the contemporary world. Part of what is interesting about that topic is the artist-audience connection in the 21st century. Two things have brought this to mind recently. The first was an article in The Telegraph about award-winning playwright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard. In the article, Stoppard complained that he had to rewrite a scene in his newest play, The Hard Problem, three times “making a particular allusion more and more obvious each time.” He says that over the last 40 years the audience’s knowledge of Shakespearean drama (to which Stoppard makes constant references) has steadily declined to the point that such knowledge is almost non-existent. For Stoppard this is a devastating turn of events.

The second incident was Kneehigh’s recent production of Tristan & Yseult as part of the Alley Theatre’s 2014-15 season. This production was arguably the best piece of theatre to have been presented in the Houston area for a number of years, yet many potential audience members chose not to attend. Some that I talked to said they had planned to skip the production simply because of the title; some because of the description: a tale of an ancient Cornish love triangle, the same love triangle that appears with different names in the literature of many different cultures and countries, classic and archetypal in every way.

Like Stoppard, most artists give meaning to their work through reference and allusion both consciously and subconsciously, and most assume that their audiences will “get it.” If they don’t, a large part of the complexity of the work will be lost, and even though the work may be engaging, even entertaining, it will not be perceived in its complete fullness, with all the overtones and undertones.

What happens when the audience does not have the classical education to understand the references and allusions in the production? Stoppard’s choice is to rewrite and dumb it down.

Tristan & Yseult, on the other hand, was in no way dumbed-down. Audiences did not have to have a classic education to understand and appreciate the show. Such an education enriched the experience, but was completely unnecessary, because the creative team moved past verbal allusions and, incorporating broad references to both historical and modern western culture, employing not only acting, but music, dance, and elements of circus. This group brought a very old mythic, archetypal story to a very new audience with all the meaning and immediacy that is possible. In fact, Theatermania said that the show was “a sensory feast. Each design detail is integral to the story, and brilliantly put to use by Rice and her cast. By the end you’ll be willing to follow them anywhere, be it Cornwall, Ireland, or beyond. The performances are incredibly committed. Kneehigh is the gold standard of theatrical rigor, fortified by a heavy dose of fun.”

While we might take issue with an educational system that leaves an audience ignorant of Shakespeare and other classics, the fact is that today’s audiences lack that background. This lack of classic education and inability to grasp allusions and references is not something that impacts only dramatic arts. Serious visual and plastic artists must deal with it as well.

And there are choices in how we, as artists, deal with it. We can, like Stoppard, rewrite and dumb-down things until the audience “gets it,” or, like Kneehigh, find new ways to present material that connects today’s audience directly to meaning, regardless of how classical or archetypal that might be.

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