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The Illusion of Simplicity

Monday, 8. September 2014 0:47

This post started with the thesis that good art is complex, which often means has many layers or many interactive parts. Some who agree with this position will talk about how much they enjoy discovering the intricacies of a piece, which increases their appreciation of the work.

Then two things happened: (1) during a conversation with an actor about the difficulties of producing the musical, The Fantasticks, the actor said, “But it has to look simple.” I said, “Yes it does.” What I thought was, “It always should; it should look effortless.” (2) At a juried art show reception that same week, I found myself looking at a stunning black-and-white land/seascape of the Galveston estuary. Another photographer was telling me, “He [the photographer who made the image on the wall] has been moving toward minimalism for a couple of years now.” Minimalism had not figured into my theory concerning complexity as a necessary characteristic of quality art. These incidents taken together caused me to rethink the whole idea, resulting in a new question: If complexity is one of the marks of quality art, then how does one explain Minimalism and similar sorts of work?

The answer came with the realization that the word complexity can have two applications in reference to art. (1) It can be apparent complexity, as in a work with many facets and/or layers and parts that interact on many different levels. This is the sort of complexity you might find in the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dali, or Jackson Pollock. (2) Complex can also be used to describe the process by which art is produced. American filmmakers, for example expend great effort to hide the artifice by which their work is created, opting instead—at least in most cases—for a story that is easily digested by the audience, allowing that audience to concentrate on the characters and the plot without having to be concerned with how difficult it was to create that seamless narrative.

And this second meaning of complex applies to some things we have already mentioned. We will work very hard to make not only The Fantasticks but any play, no matter how complex, look effortless, for much the same reason as the filmmakers. This is true of nearly any performing art; all seek to hide the difficulty of the task by employing the highest levels of expertise. Both performers and those behind the scenes do what they do with an apparent ease that belies the unending planning, training, preparation, and rehearsal.

Even though we think of them differently, visual and plastic arts are much the same. The photographer who made the piece mentioned above did not do so by simply setting up his camera in the grasslands and snapping the picture. If you are familiar with photography, you realize that this image was the result of a great deal of planning, better-than-competent execution, skilled post-processing, and expert printing, all so the result would be precise, clean, and minimal.

Whether it is a Buddhist raked rock garden or Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, the creation of such apparently simple things requires enormous imagination, planning, and expertise. But, just as in Hollywood films, the artifice is hidden.

So it turns out that good minimalist art, or any art that appears effortless or visually simple may not be simple at all; nor was it produced easily. The complexity and the effort are just hidden. If you’ve ever tried to this kind of work, you already know: simplicity is an illusion.

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“It Always Comes Together”

Sunday, 9. March 2014 22:15

That’s what a musician who has played every musical that I have directed for the past several years said that to me recently after a particularly brutal first-night-with-the-band rehearsal. It was in response to the look on my face as I was about to give notes. And, in all fairness, it (the play or the musical) does come together more often than not. But it doesn’t always, and it is decidedly not an assured outcome.

There are two reasons that someone would feel assurances such as his may be necessary: the first is that the week before opening (or before first previews if that is part of the production plan)—when all the pieces get put together—is particularly chaotic. Costumes are added. Makeup is applied. Rehearsal props are replaced with show props that don’t feel quite the same in the actors’ hands. In musicals, the band comes in and is louder and plays music that is far more complex than the rehearsal pianist played. Light cues happen, sometimes not quite correctly, then get refined. Sound cues happen and are modified. Microphones are added and adjusted on the fly. And during all this, the director wants the actors to not only adjust to all the new things, but to turn out better and better performances that are more energetic, funnier, sadder, more nuanced than the ones before. And that same director seems not satisfied with anything that happens on the stage and is not hesitant about informing the entire company. So it seems as if it may not happen at all.

The second reason that it seems that “it always comes together” is because, more often than not, it does. And it seems to be a bit of a miracle. It’s one of the things that movies and live theatre have in common. In fact, someone at this year’s Oscar™ ceremony said as much. From the outside—and sometimes from the inside as well—it certainly seems miraculous.

But it is not really a miracle, and that it will, in fact, come together cannot be taken for granted. Stage productions and movies, and probably all performances come together because the production staff never stops working and refining and tweaking and polishing and because they don’t let the performers ever stop doing exactly the same thing. They know that if they falter or let up, the performance will never reach its potential.

The problem of performance production is that all of the component pieces and the people who represent them have to fit together much like a gigantic multi-personalitied jigsaw puzzle. If they don’t fit, the production will suffer. And if the production suffers, then all the work, while not exactly wasted, will not fulfill the artistic vision of the production team. So sometimes the pieces have to be hammered into place, modified, replaced, shaved and reset, or sanded slick. People have to be persuaded, cajoled, convinced, coerced or manipulated into doing what is necessary to make the show happen.

But occasionally even the best of production teams, even those with great experience cannot bring the pieces together. And when that happens, even if the production does not fail, the play or musical or movie or concert is not what it could have been.

It’s really no different than the production of any artifact, except that it is a group effort—in some cases, a very large group—instead of the work of an individual artist. And we all know that no artist is immune to the occasional failure. And when that happens, those of us in performance do exactly what any painter, novelist, photographer, or sculptor would do in a similar circumstance: scrap what must be scrapped, salvage what is salvageable, and move on to the next project, because we know that there are no assurances that “it will always come together.”

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Two More Days

Sunday, 23. February 2014 22:57

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Importance of Venue

Sunday, 5. January 2014 23:56

In a recent blog, Seth Godin makes the point that if we think we are supposed to like something, we probably will. He uses the examples of laughing more at a comedy club, liking the food better at fancy restaurants, and feeling like we have a bargain if we buy it at an outlet store. In other words, the venue influences the perceived value of the experience.

Reinforcing this idea is the Washington Post experiment instigated by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Gene Weingarten and implemented by Grammy Award-winning violinist and conductor Joshua Bell. Bell, lightly disguised, played as a street performer for 45 minutes at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC on January 12, 2007. Only seven people stopped to listen and he collected a total of $32.17. Earlier the same week, he had played the same concert to a sold-out $100-per-seat house.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet once compared New York and Chicago theatre audiences in what seems to be a comment on the same phenomenon, “In Chicago, we just presume that the best theatre is going to be in somebody’s garage.”

This about more than the environment in which an art work exists, it is about the perception of value (the qualitative portion of audience expectation) based strictly on venue. Because of the prices we pay, and the location of the theatres, we expect New York theatre to be the best in the world, and consequently we like it more. As we move away from Manhattan, our expectations shrink and we expect to like what we see less; we are hardly ever disappointed. We look at the environment and adjust our expectations. Is it a union house? Are the actors professional? Are they students? Whether consciously or unconsciously, we modify our expectations according to the venue. We expect less and like it less.

This way of thinking does not apply only to theatre. We base our expectation of the quality of any art on the venue and the location of the venue. So when we walk into the hole-in-the-wall club in Tennessee, we do not expect to hear world class music.  When we visit an outdoor art fair in Texas, we do not anticipate seeing mature, masterful work. We do not really expect world-class anything outside of the “proper” context.

Like many of the passersby in the Washington Post experiment, many of us are so locked into the idea of how we are supposed to respond (according to location and situation) that we cannot hear the actual quality of the music or see the real quality of the art.

An earlier installment of this blog, “Context Matters” said, “The ambiance surrounding works of art, seeps into the work, and fuses with it. It impacts the work and cannot do otherwise. It’s part of the art transaction that cannot be avoided. The trick then is to be able to mentally decontextualize the work, so that you can be sure that you are actually appreciating the piece, not the context in which you find it.” Although certainly a desirable ideal, the more I learn, the less sure I am that decontextualization is a real possibility—at least for most people.

And although we know very well that quality is not related to venue, as artists we need to be aware of this phenomenon and realize that where we show our work does indeed matter to the majority of our audience. We may not like it, but we had better learn to deal with it.

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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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Acting and Flow

Monday, 18. November 2013 0:56

Almost every acting coach I know teaches that to really do the work of acting properly, the actor must be in the moment. We watch young actors struggle first with the concept and then the practice. We watch them inch toward that goal, and if we are lucky we get to see flashes of it in the occasional performance. It is a difficult thing to do, since to do it, the actor has to undo years of training and practice in avoiding the present.

Actors are not the only artists who do their best work in the moment. A number of artists, when they are working, drift into the “eternal present,” which is normally called flow and which I have discussed before (here, here, and here). They begin work, and often without their knowledge, the world drifts away to be replaced by a moment-to-moment existence wherein the very best of creation happens. This is the way it usually happens to actors as well. They start a scene and get caught up in it and then they are creating in a way that they never have before.

During the last rehearsal of the week, I was privileged to witness an actor leap fully into the present moment and stay there, sustained for an entire scene—repeatedly.  That doesn’t sound like so much when you say it in words, but it was amazing to watch.

Run-through after run-through, the actor leapt into the present and stayed there until a stop was called. Anyone who has attended even two rehearsals can testify to the rarity of such an event.

The show that we are rehearsing is Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol by Tom Mula. For an actor it presents an unusual challenge, at least the way we are doing the show. This actor’s problem was to portray a character named Actor 2, who, in turn, portrays at least one other character, so he has to present at least two distinct characters to the audience, sometimes in the same speech. The transitions are nearly instantaneous and problematic to say the least, and adding depth to the second-level character is a further difficulty.

When this actor made the jump, those problems disappeared. He was alternately Marley and Actor 2 and Marley. Each distinct, with different postures, accents, attitudes. Although he stayed close to what had been rehearsed, he modified his blocking as necessary to achieve his objective in the scene. And he adapted his tone and approach to counter whatever the actor playing Scrooge invented as a response.

Suddenly we were not watching the actor that we knew; we were instead watching a persona named Actor 2 and a ghost named Marley alternate in the same body. The level of concentration, characterization, and intensity rivaled that of any seasoned professional at the top of his/her game. The whole room was completely silent. We (the stage manager, assistant stage manager, assistant director, and I) had seen that scene perhaps 10 to 12 times before, but we were all watching as though it were the first time. And we watched the first time—three times. Such is the power of the present moment. It was theatre as it is supposed to be. It was powerful enough that the stage manager cried, I discovered later.

The actor, since he was fully in the moment, remembered very little of what happened. As we talked after the rehearsal and he came back to himself, he began to remember more. My hope is that he will recall most of it over time, but that is not important. What is important is that he made the jump and discovered the value of flow and the immense boost to creativity that you can get only by working in the moment.

I could wish no more for any artist, be he/she sculptor, painter, photographer, dancer, writer.

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The Real Function of the Audience

Sunday, 10. November 2013 23:33

A couple of weeks ago, I exhibited in an art show to which almost no one came. So we stood around and chatted and nibbled the refreshments and wondered why, not that that information would have really been useful. Then, last week I wrote a blog that seemed to have been read by no one, to judge from the lack of feedback.

In both instances, final outcomes were not what conditions would have predicted. An “I’ll-get-back-to-you” at the art show actually did, and purchased three pieces. And statistics showed that an average number of people read the blog; they just hadn’t seen a reason to comment on it or press a “like” button.

But these instances did make me think about the connection between our work and our audience. Theatre, the textbooks tell us, requires an audience—it’s an essential ingredient. At the other end of the spectrum are visual artists and bloggers, of course, who are pretty sure that no one is paying attention to anything they are doing. Does this then mean that the connection of the audience to art varies with the medium? Or is it that different artists approach the question of audience differently? Or is this one of those questions that requires that we look deeper?

A starting point might be to try to determine the relationship between creating art and the audience for that art: do we make art for the audience or some other reason? The answer probably depends on what sort of art we are making as well as how much we are willing to cater to audience taste.  Commercial art, for example, must please a certain audience; pop art usually caters to the perceived taste of the anticipated audience.

Regardless of what we are creating, at the most fundamental level, we make art for ourselves. Then consideration of the audience comes into play. How much consideration is given to the audience depends on the artist and the work. For example, those who work in performing arts take audience expectations into consideration—will the audience understand it? Will they like it? Will they hate it? And it’s not all trying to please the audience; in some cases, performing artists will push the envelope of audience acceptance for a variety of reasons. Playwright Harold Pinter has been noted to perceive the audience-play relationship as a battle.

On the other hand, those visual artists and writers mentioned earlier who don’t yet have an audience or who are completely removed from the audience seem to be completely unaffected by any potential viewers or readers. It’s not that they are more “pure;” it’s just that they are, for the present, unaware of how people might react to their work so they don’t think about it.

Like them, we continue to make art for ourselves, maybe considering the audience or maybe not. Then we abandon it to whatever audience is available. That audience responds to our work in some way or the other, and thus exists a conversation between the artist and the audience. It can be can be warm and friendly or, as in the case of Pinter, it can be adversarial, or it can be anything in between. And it can operate on an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual level or some combination. And it certainly can be and almost always is asynchronous. And in that conversation is the importance of art.

No matter why we set out to create art, no matter how much or how little consideration we give the audience during that process, the fact is that the audience functions as the other party in the conversation that is our art, and, for good or ill, completes our work.

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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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The Value of Strike

Monday, 21. October 2013 7:12

If you work in theatre you know about a thing called a strike. For the uninitiated, a strike is that time when the set is taken down and removed from the stage. Props are returned to storage. Costumes are readied for cleaning. Color media are removed from lighting instruments. The final act of a strike is the almost-ritual sweeping of the stage. This is a time, often late at night, when everyone knows that the show is finally, irrevocably over.

For some it is a time of some sadness, particularly if the show was a very good one; we always want the good to continue. For others, it is a moment of celebration, a signal that they will be moving on to the next project, knowing that this one, no matter how good or bad, has been completed. For everyone, it is a time of the recognition of finality. The show is over; it will not, cannot have another performance. Only new is available.

Tomorrow there will be new tape lines on the stage. Tomorrow we will begin in earnest on the show that is—for the time being—the most important show of our careers, because the current one always is—if we’re doing it right.

Many of us work on multiple overlapping projects. At times, there seems to be no end to it: start a project, work on two others, complete another. There is little in that routine to serve as any sort of a progress marker. And we need progress markers. Perhaps that’s why it’s so refreshing to participate in a strike. An ending. We won’t be working on that project anymore; now we can put our whole attention on a new project. It is almost a death-rebirth ceremony: the stage has been cleared for whatever is to come.

In my years in theatre, I have been through several hundred strikes. Each one is different. Each one is poignant. Each one carries a sense of new beginnings. And if there is one thing that we need as artists, it’s new beginnings. At a recent art show, an artist who was not exhibiting, commented that she was disappointed that some artists were hanging the same thing that they had put on the walls a year ago. Some theatre artists may do that too—but most do not; they start new on a clean stage.

As I walked out of the theatre after strike last night, I was thinking about the tear-down of the art show in which I had been exhibiting earlier in the day. The two were entirely different, and I thought that if I could wish one thing for not-theatrical artists, it would be that they too could experience strike. There is a recognition of finality and sense of renewal that cannot be equaled, regardless of what position you happen to have held in a show.

And there is value in that recognition; it marks our progress and provides us with new beginnings.  Perhaps those of us who are not now consciously acknowledging endings and beginnings, should.

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