Tag archive for » Tennessee Williams «

What We Really Want to do is Make Poetry

Monday, 14. August 2017 1:14

In reviewing the photographic work of Ren Hang, the Chinese photographer and poet, who ended his life earlier this year, I realized that each of his photographs is a visual poem—much in the same way that the late poet/songwriter/composer/performer Leonard Cohen’s songs were poetry. Note that here I am using the secondary definition of poetry: “a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems.” And those characteristics are specifically, “a concentrated awareness of experience” created with elements “arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.”

One often hears about the poetry of a Tennessee Williams play, or the poetry of a particular ballerina, or the visual poetry of any number of painters and photographers. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the iconographic work in every genre of art, indeed in every sub-genre, is poetic in nature, i.e. they have some sort of concentrated awareness, the elements of which are arranged to work intricately with each other to generate a specific emotional or intellectual response.

A simplistic explanation would be that the “poetic” artist is simply following the Principles of Design. Although sources provide many different lists of these principles, the Getty list is a solid one and lists nine principles of design: balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety, and unity. And yes, these principles do contribute to poetic possibilities of a work of art.

But that’s not enough. Many artists work to use all nine elements in their work, and that work (including poetry itself) may qualify as “good” or even “very good,” but it never quite rises to the level of poetry that I am talking about. We have all seen plays, movies, dance productions, paintings, photographs, sculptures, and have heard songs, concerts, readings that, upon analysis, did use all of the principles of design, but only a few reach that iconic level that I am calling poetry.

The question is why. If all the pieces are there, what prevents the work from reaching its absolute potential? The answer, I think, is all of those elements must not only be there, but must be interconnected and work together—along with form and content—like the wheels and cogs in an intricate mechanical device. Indeed these elements must be melded together integrally so that it is almost impossible for the viewer to isolate any one individual part. This fusion of all the components of the piece creates a beauty that is larger than the sum of the parts.

And that is what we who claim to be artists are trying to do—make work that transcends the components that we manipulate to create the work. And even though the Ren Hangs and Tennessee Williamses and Leonard Cohens make it look easy, it isn’t. (And if you dig, you‘ll discover it wasn’t easy for them either.) But, like them, we want our work to be the best it can be, and that requires constant effort and self-evaluation. But with effort, we too can make work that may not be perfect, but is certainly poetry.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity | Comment (0) | Autor:

Let Go

Monday, 19. June 2017 1:41

You may have heard that the Albee estate denied the performance rights to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the producing organization, the Complete Works Project, had cast an African-American in the role of Nick. The director, Michael Streeter, spread the word in his Facebook status and the story took off. Responses have appeared on all media and support both positions. Nobody questions the right of the estate to deny rights for whatever reason, but there is great diversity of opinion on whether this is a good or bad choice.

A friend who is a director and actor said that he thought he would have to side with the Albee estate in this particular situation, but that he wished that playwrights would release their death-grip on their plays. And they do have a death-grip, whether the playwright is living or is represented by an estate.

The first such restriction I observed was shortly after the Mickey Mouse Protection Act of 1976 in a contract for a college production of one of Neil Simon’s plays. The contract said that not a single word could be changed. Since that time, such a restriction has become standard, and one of many. The Albee estate-Complete Works rights denial is the first time I have heard of a copyright owner rejecting a specific cast member.

“Artist’s Rights,” can be taken to ludicrous extremes. For example, Arturo Di Modica demanded through his attorney that because he created Wall Street’s Charging Bull, he should have been consulted before Kristen Visbal’s sculpture, Fearless Girl, was installed just feet away. Di Modica said that “the adjacent art has changed the meaning of his work and violated his legal rights” (ironic, given that the bull, like the girl, was installed without permission).

There are two reasons I agree with my friend’s “death grip” comment on playwright’s rights. First, theatre is a collaborative art: there is an originator of the script and then the interpretation of that script by a production company. This is similar to the composer/conductor-orchestra relationship. The fact is that by allowing any group to produce the work, even with restrictions, the licensing agent is allowing interpretation. Set, cast, blocking will be different in each production. Restrictions applied to professional productions are not required of amateur productions. Some restrictions do not take into account the specific audience that will see the work. These taken together produce an inherent inconsistency in licensing with regard to protecting the “artistic integrity” of the work. Indeed, And at least two of the articles I read (here and here)—citing Shakespeare and Chekhov as playwrights whose work is interpreted in a number or ways and whose work lasts—suggest that if the Albee estate continues its current policy, it well essentially condemn Virginia Woolf to obscurity.

Both Tennessee Williams and the Williams estate have taken a position almost opposite the Albee estate’s position. Williams allowed his work to be done by almost any group, and the estate has followed suit. The results have been a broadening of understanding and appreciating Williams. For example, a 2008 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featuring an all-black cast demonstrated that the play is powerful regardless of race.

The second reason, in my mind, applies to all artists:  Once the artist declares the piece done, it exists in the universe as an entity unto itself. Regardless of his/her rights, the artist needs to have enough confidence in whatever s/he has created, that s/he can let go of the piece and get on to the real work of the artist—creating. A solid work can stand on its own—if the copyright owner will let it.

Category:Communication, Marketing, Presentation, Theatre | Comment (0) | Autor:

Art Must Be Important

Sunday, 14. June 2015 23:46

Tennessee Williams, in an interview with James Grissom, said “Of course art should be about something big. Something terribly big must be at stake. I don’t see this anymore. Our art is becoming terribly polite and apologetic, much like us. It slinks away like a sagging breast, empty of milk or promise or comfort.”

If you have read or seen the plays of Williams, you know that “something big” does not necessarily mean big in the sense of news or nations. He really means big in terms of the human condition, or big to the playwright himself or his audience. We might substitute the word important and be closer to what Williams really meant. Something really important must be at stake. Art should be about something important. Absolutely.

If something is important, it generally means that the artist feels strongly about it. And if the artist feels strongly he/she may create art that has sufficiently strength to offend someone. Sadly, society has, at least in the US, come to believe that not being offended is a right. Williams did the interview in 1982; if anything, it’s worse today—at least in some parts of the country.

If you haven’t run across this issue, you only have to look as far as your local collegiate theatre department. Those of us in educational theatre deal with this every day; for example, we worry about how the plays we select will be received, not in terms of message or in terms of artistry, but in terms of offense to certain segments of the audience. You may find that silly, but when funding relies on public monies and when administration is sensitive to community complaints, it becomes a real concern.

This also happens in the commercial sector. I recall several discussions with independent producers who are constantly self-censoring their selection of material because of concern with offending sponsors and potential donors.

And it happens in arts other than theatre, both in educational and commercial sectors. A friend who is a photographer recently had two pieces rejected by two different galleries (which had previously shown his work) as “too controversial.” There are many artists, visual and otherwise, who would love to hear that their work was too controversial; it would be validation that they were doing the right thing with their art, that their art said something, that their art was important. The downside, of course, is that the work doesn’t get shown, at least in those venues who eschew controversial work, which is the majority of venues.

So we self-censor; a multimedia artist told me recently that she modifies her content based on whether she is making the work to sell or for herself. Williams would not have approved; he railed against self-censorship in the same interview: “When did we become so small and so apologetic? Why do we apologize for our humanity? Love what you love, and make no apologies. This is your identity. The most horrendous suspensions of freedom are self-imposed. We imprison ourselves daily, hourly.”

Admittedly, it’s much safer to make trivial, non-controversial art, but perhaps safe is not the best choice, at least if we think even a little like Williams. We need to quit making polite, apologetic art and instead have the courage make our art about something important.

Category:Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0) | Autor:

Artist or Artisan?

Sunday, 6. November 2011 23:32

Over the last couple of weeks, I have had occasion to reread two of my favorite plays, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Between readings, I sometimes forget just how good these plays are. Both are complex multi-layered pieces that take full advantage of the unique properties of the live stage situation, albeit in very different ways. What is also very apparent is that these two pieces of theatrical art were penned by writers who were at the top of their game, in terms of both art and craft. The men who wrote these two plays are not just artisans; they are artists.

In an article called “No, Not Everybody’s an Artist (Despite what they may think)” and the follow-up article, “C’est La Vie,” John Stillmunks tries to get at the difference between artists and artisans, pointing out that having a good idea or a new product or a marketing angle does not make someone an artist.  In his first article, Stillmunks says that real art touches the heart and soul of the viewer. In the follow-up, he goes further, saying that “an artist takes something out of his or her heart and soul and places it on that page, canvas, song, or whatever.” For him it’s not about technique, but the notion that the artist takes the “camera, brush, voice or pen to an entirely different level…a unique place.” This is not something that just anyone can do, and Stillmunks is convinced that it cannot be taught.

Stillmunks, a painter, points out that the current art market is just that, a market. There are juried shows and submission requirements and things that just don’t interest a number of real artists. Real artists are about making the art, regardless of the medium, and often regardless of the potential market.

Of the many who have tried to write like Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, either in terms of style or material, most simply don’t measure up. They may have the technique, the technical knowledge, the skills. What they do not have is the willingness or the ability to put themselves into their work. No matter what medium is involved, that takes guts; sometimes it seems that it takes obsession or worse. Some artists talk about the need to put themselves into the work. This is not merely self-expression; there is a readiness, perhaps a necessity, to put the most personal parts of the inner self on display.

Once that will exists, the rest follows. There is only one of each person and if that person is truly putting him/herself into the work, the artist will do whatever he/she has to do to get the work “right.” The result may not be pretty; it may even be painful, but it will be honest. It will be unique and authentic, and more important, it will speak to people—and not just to their minds, but to their hearts and souls. Art, real art, moves people.

With the current state of the arts market, it seems that many who make things have become more artisans and vendors than artists. There is nothing wrong with creating artifacts that will sell, nor is there anything wrong with selling reproductions of your work. But I have to agree with Stillmunks: technique and sales acumen are not what make people artists.

Artists are those whose work we look at over and over again. I reread plays by Williams and Albee and a few others. We look at certain paintings and photographs and sculptures repeatedly. We watch familiar ballets and listen again to musical masterpieces. The work of artists enriches us, and so we return to it—because even if it’s not pretty, it’s very often beautiful.

Category:Creativity, Originality, Theatre | Comments (2) | Autor: