Tag archive for » theatre «

Everybody Loves Bob Dylan

Sunday, 24. March 2024 22:19

Actually…they don’t—not everybody. Admittedly, a great number of people love Bob Dylan, and an even larger number like him, but some only like one or two songs, and some don’t like him at all. And that’s the thing about art: most art does not resonate with everyone, and some art resonates with just a few people. This is what makes it so difficult for an artist to make a living doing their art—finding enough people who not only like the art, but like it well enough to spend money on it. It has been a problem from the very beginning of art until the present.

Even people who work in the art world, artists included, acknowledge that they don’t like all art. What they understand, however, is there is a great difference between liking a piece of art and understanding that it is good art, regardless of how well it is liked. Take Dylan for example. While not everyone likes his music, there is near universal agreement that he is “considered to be one of the greatest songwriters in history.” “Liking” something indicates that we have a personal resonance with the object; it speaks to us. Acknowledging the quality of something, on the other hand, indicates that we recognize that the art in question meets certain standards and has intrinsic value. Thus, while we may or may not like Dylan’s work, we must appreciate that the quality of it is such that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 for his song lyrics.

Such a distinction applies to all arts. Take, for example, professional wrestling. At first glance this activity may not seem to be an art, however, it is clearly defined as “a form of athletic theater that combines mock combat with drama, under the premise that the performers are competitive wrestlers,” and we can generally agree that theatre is an art form. Many, many people like professional wrestling— because it is highly entertaining. However, that does not mean that it is a highly-valued art form. In fact, it is difficult to assess the quality of professional wrestling at all, since much of it is loose improvisation. Some entertainers are certainly better than others and may be lauded for their performances. Still, the art form itself lacks the qualitative stature that is common to other theatre forms. Certainly, one does not expect a Nobel Prize to be given to professional wrestling. But that is not the point. The point is that there is a great difference between being liked and being considered “good.” Sometimes being liked is the desired goal.

So what are we as artists to do with this information? We need to decide whether we are trying to do work that is good or work that is liked. Ideally, we would do both, but often we cannot have that. We must decide what we are trying to do with our art. Are we trying to impact our immediate audience, or are we trying to create work that will speak to audiences in other times and places as well as our own? This is not to say that one choice is better than another; rather, it is to say that sometimes we must clarify what we are trying to do, so that we can better hone our craft and speak to whichever audience we choose.

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A Forgotten Front in the Culture Wars

Sunday, 12. March 2023 21:45

In the ongoing educational “culture wars,” the focus has been primarily on diversity, equity, and inclusion; critical race theory; and sexual and gender identity. The primary battlegrounds have been public school classrooms and libraries, with some spillover into public colleges and universities. The goal of these attacks is to censor what is being taught and discussed. One front, often forgotten in these battles, is live theatre, again primarily in public schools with a spillover into colleges.

Productions have been challenged and sometimes cancelled in Florida (Indecent), Indiana (Marian, of the True Tale of Robin Hood), Kansas (classroom censorship of The Laramie Project), Pennsylvania (Rent), and Ohio (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). (The last situation had the best outcome which eventually involved actors and creators from the Broadway production.) And these are not counting those cancellations that did not make the news. For example, here in Texas last year a play at a local high school was canceled because it portrayed a gay character—not the lead, and the play was not about homosexuality. Just one of the characters happened to be gay.

And at a nearby community college, the entire season of dramatic work must be approved by the Executive Leadership Team, a group made up of the president and his vice-presidents. Of course, none of these are classroom instructors, nor do they have any expertise in theatre or audience development. They simply have the authority to veto productions—at least it’s in advance, before the work of the production is done. Moreover, the process is completely opaque. The Theatre Director at this institution has no idea why any particular play choice is vetoed, particularly when he has made a best guess at what will be acceptable. There are no guidelines.

Admittedly, in the way of things, academic live theatre is not a huge or well-known battleground; it is, however, an important one. Shows are cancelled without concern for the students or programs involved. There is no consideration given to the impact on audience development or recruiting. And this is often done on the basis of a single complaint, or worse, fear of a single complaint. Additionally, no consideration is given to what this may be teaching students: run and hide at the first criticism, or the fear of criticism, never mind that there may be only one objection. Where is the allegiance to academic freedom and integrity? Where is the support for students and faculty and their choices, which may be based on numerous factors outside the consideration of the censors?

All academic censorship is done under the flag of propriety: the material of the play is “inappropriate”—usually for the students, but sometimes the institution. This notion, however, seems to be based on the comfort level of community or administration members (and it is usually a small minority), rather than the students themselves. And that comfort level seems to be founded on the misapprehension that the students and/or the audience members are less mature and aware than they really are.

What are the theatre faculty and students to do in these instances? What they can—argument seems to serve little purpose. The best that can be done is to gather as much audience, faculty, and student support as possible, be careful of your play choices, and, most important, keep pushing the envelope.

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When You Don’t Like the Art You Make

Sunday, 13. March 2022 22:46

It happens. Sometimes we make art that we don’t really like. This happens for a number of reasons. The work was a consignment piece; we made the work because it was on the schedule; the work didn’t turn out the way we expected; the reasons go on and on. But it feels strange to have made something and realize that you really don’t like it.

So then what do you do? There are a number of choices: you can destroy the piece, if it’s physical. You can rework the piece if there is sufficient time. You can put the piece into the world, but take your name off of it. You can call it a failure (even if it’s not really) and learn from the experience. Or you can recognize that you cannot love everything you make, let it go, and move on to the next project.

This happened to me recently. I directed a show, a musical, and it turned out to be not one of my favorites. There were a couple of reasons: one was the structure of the play; it was more a concert with narrative inserts than a real play, and it was not a show that I would have voluntarily gone to see had someone else staged it—not to my taste. But it was on the schedule and so I directed it. And it was successful. The intended audience showed up and—judging from their reaction—thoroughly enjoyed the show. And through it all, I nodded, and smiled, and said “thank you” when people told me how good it was.

And it was a good show. We worked the script to capitalize on its strengths and minimize its shortcomings. The musical direction was excellent, as was the band. Choreography, though minimal, was exactly what was necessary. The performers were precisely what the script needed to bring it to life. It was simply not to my taste. A valuable lesson I learned long ago from a visiting professor of English literature was to be able to distinguish between art that was good and art that I simply didn’t like. I learned that my liking or not liking a piece of art had no bearing on whether the art was good. That is determined by standards outside of individual likes and dislikes. So despite it being not to my taste, I did the best job directing that I could do, and even came to like certain parts of the show.

Like all artists, I would like to love everything I produce; however, it doesn’t seem possible, particularly when there are so many considerations in determining what projects one works on. So I think that if we are artisans as well as artists, we do pretty much what I did, or tried to do: make the project the best we possibly can. Put it out into the world. Accept whatever the reaction happens to be. Move on to the next project. Maybe it will be one that we can love.

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Be Prepared to Pivot—Again—and Again

Sunday, 15. August 2021 22:00

Counting from March, 2019, we are now half way through the second year of the COVID pandemic, which unfortunately, in the US, is becoming increasingly politicized. At one end of the spectrum, some theatres in Washington, DC, and various concert artists are requiring proof of vaccination, masks, or a negative COVID test for audience members. At the other, venues in Texas are forbidden by the state government from requiring any sort of proof of vaccination to the point that restaurants have been threatened with revocation of their liquor licenses if they require patrons to provide proof of vaccination.

What does this mean for live theatre, for the arts in general? Nobody knows. In states where mask or vaccination requirements are forbidden, will audiences be comfortable sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a theatre? Will audience response be what the production needs in theatres where the audience is socially distanced? Will patrons feel comfortable mingling in art shows, with or without masks? Is there really any way to know who is really vaccinated and who is not? How will all this impact the world of art, in all of its aspects?

The answer, of course, is that no one knows. And beyond that, the question becomes what is the correct response for the art world. No one knows the answer to that question either. Some theatres are trying to come back with live theatre; others are honing their online production skills. Some are trying to do both. It’s all a balancing act (and it’s going on in arts other than theatre). Those who are going live are trying to figure out how the audience will respond to whatever restrictions. Those who are online are discovering that the best way to do online production is to turn theatre into cinema.

And what of departments and schools of theatre? Does anyone want to train in a field, the future of which is so uncertain? Again, nobody knows.

What we do know is that theatres, art galleries, arts schools and departments must be ready to reevaluate their practices if they are to survive. They must have alternative plans in place and be ready to pivot to any of those plans on a moment’s notice.

In the words of Shakespeare, “The readiness is all”—because there is no “normal” any more—not even a “new normal.” Every day is new territory. We are now in a time when what we have learned in the past is of little value, because today’s present is so very different, and the old rules and ideas simply do not apply.

So what do we in the arts world do? We become agile. We become prepared to pivot—on a moment’s notice, in any of a number of directions—because we cannot be guided by the past. And not only that, what is true today may not be true tomorrow. There is no research to support our decisions. All we can do is make our best guess. Some organizations and individuals have already guessed wrong. That’s okay, because if they are nimble and can pivot, they can correct their courses, and make better decisions going forward.

The world is different than it ever has been, particularly for live performance. If we are to survive, we must be ready and willing to pivot.

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Reopening the Performing Arts

Sunday, 9. May 2021 22:49

Earlier this week, I attended a combined band/choir concert at the college where I teach. It was their first performance in 17 months and was an outdoor event on a warm Texas early evening. The audience was invited to bring their own chairs and many did.

While the concert itself was interesting, the audience was equally interesting. The audience arranged itself into rough rows with people who came together sitting together. Between every group there was a space: without direction, the groups had socially distanced themselves. About half of the audience was masked.

The concert seemed to provide a concrete example of the way people are feeling in May 2021: anxious to get out and do things, but cautious because there’s still a pandemic going on. And, of course, there are those who have pretty much ignored the virus from the beginning in the mix as well.

One wonders what this bodes for performing arts in the future. Some movie theatres are already open. Broadway is scheduled to reopen in September. But will the audiences be comfortable with going back inside for their entertainment? If the concert I attended is any indication, audiences who voluntarily social distance outside will certainly want to be socially distanced inside. To accommodate that need/desire, some ticketing software companies have added a social-distancing feature to their software which automatically creates a “bubble” around sold seats. Then there is the question of masks: will an audience be comfortable wearing masks for the entire length of a performance? Will they be comfortable with no one in the audience wearing masks, or some wearing masks and some not?

With all that social distancing, at what point will performing arts, which struggle to make a profit under the best of circumstances, be able to support themselves? How will they manage to survive if social distancing limits them to 50%-75% of capacity? Or, if they operate at 100% capacity, will audience members be comfortable enough to purchase tickets?

In addition to the question of finances, there is the question of audience response. It is well-known that a tightly-seated audience will respond better than when audience members are separated by empty seats. If a significant portion of seats are empty due to social distancing, what will that do to the audience response? And what, in turn, will that do to the performance?

As difficult as performing arts have been during what we hope was the height of the pandemic, the return to “normal” may be just as difficult. Just as we had to climb the learning curve of virtual production and adapt our techniques to streaming, we will have to adapt again—to the “new normal,” which will not be, cannot be as things were before March 2020. Then as the situation hopefully improves we will have to adapt again, and again, and again.

And we will. The world has seen pandemics before, and the performing arts have survived. And so will they this time. However, I suspect, they will be changed. Indeed, some performing arts companies have already announce permanent changes based on things learned during the pandemic. So we may never go back to “the way things were before.” And that, once we figure it out, will be just fine.

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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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The Zoom Show

Sunday, 11. October 2020 22:51

We just closed our first ever virtual production, which, because we do not have the resources of SNL, we did it with Zoom. Here are some things we learned:

  1. Familiar terminology has different meanings—or no meanings. The term “closed” above indicates that the last streaming of the performance is over. There really is no final performance in the new world. “Opening” is similar, in that the actors are home, watching themselves in a streaming show, a luxury never afforded in a live theatre situation.
  2. The Zoom format is a workable format for creating a virtual production. We did a great deal of research and a whole lot of experimenting and discovered that there are a number of tools and switches and controls in Zoom that allow the director, via the Zoom operator, to control the arrangement of actors on the screen, to allow off-stage voices, and to determine what the audience sees and hears. Zoom managed well does not require that every show look like the opening of “The Brady Bunch.”
  3. Material must be chosen carefully. Unlike the empty stage which will accept, and conform itself to virtually any material, the Zoom format, for all of its flexibility, does have some limitations, which, in turn, limit what sort of material will play well and what will not. The fact that each actor is isolated in their own window is the most basic limitation. Some gimmicks, like passing a prop from window to window, are possible, but that’s very much the extent of window interaction.
  4. There are significant differences for actors. Virtual production is different from both film and stage. The actor receives information from some portion of the screen, but must respond to the little pinhole of a camera above that screen. And the actors are close enough to the camera that eye movements are perfectly visible to anyone  watching. And each actor may be seeing a different thing on their screen. And there is no audience feedback, which is almost incomprehensible to the stage actor, who very often builds their performance based on audience response.
  5. There are significant differences for directors. The director has to think cinematically, but within the restrictions of the form. Instead of blocking, they have to deal with the order of actors on the screen and with who is visible when and who disappears when. It’s a very different sort of thinking for either a stage or film director.
  6. Set design is completely different. The design and execution are virtual and, of course has to be backed with green screens in situations which keep the actors safe. Then there is the problem of making an individual background for each actor and then figuring out how those backgrounds will match when put beside each other on the screen.
  7. There are significant differences for all the staff. The stage manager’s work is very different. Light cues are minimal. There is now a Zoom operator who is the person who is actually determining the looks and is in control of the recording—if there is one. As noted, the audience is virtual, which changes the function of the front-of-house operation and the box office.
  8. What you see is not always what you get. Zoom has its own recording rules. For example, character names disappear on the recording unless you tell Zoom to record them. Sometimes ghosts of a just-exited character appear unbidden, and weren’t seen until the recording was viewed.
  9. Murphy’s Law is alive and well and does exactly what it says it will. Because of the newness of the medium and the multiple layers of technology, there are hundreds of things that can and do go wrong, many of which were never before encountered in a play production. Fixing one problem does not mean that there is not another waiting just around the corner. Backing up work is a necessity.
  10. It’s doable. It’s not easy. But even with all the problems, it is possible to mount a virtual production that is stands up dramatically and has solid production values.

This is not a complete list, of course, but will suffice to outline the major areas. Within each area, we learned hundreds of things, some large and some small, but all significant, because even the tiniest thing matters to the success of such a production.

And we’ll do it again. Using what we’ve learned but anticipating new challenges, we are now in production for our second attempt at this new format—with a very different show this time. We, of course, are both scared and excited.

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Define It

Sunday, 1. March 2020 23:55

Several weeks ago, a photographer, a writer, and I were having a drink. (Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?) We talked about this and that, and finally the photographer, who does a lot of floral images, said that he wanted all his images to be sensual, but was having trouble making that happen.

“What do you mean by sensual?” I asked. It turned out that he did not know exactly what he meant by the word; it was more one of those “you’ll know it when you see it” kinds of things. We batted it around for a while and mostly discovered, at least for him, what sensuality wasn’t. It was sort of this and sort of that and a little of the other thing. He said it was a feeling but couldn’t get much more concrete than that.

“Have you ever tried to really define it in words?” the writer finally asked.

“Well…not really.” was the response.

“Maybe you should try.” she said. And we moved on to other things.

It turned out that the writer’s advice struck the photographer, who has spoken to me about it several times since. First he asked me if I thought it was really a worthwhile pursuit. I told him that, in my opinion, if he did not know where he was going, he could get there only by accident, and went on to explain to him the principle of the “directorial image,” a concrete image that many stage directors use to encapsulate their interpretation and guide the play toward a specific audience reaction. I understand that he is talking about a body of work rather than a specific picture, but the principle to me seemed to be the same.

In our next conversation, he told me that he had been doing some research—mostly into the dictionary definitions. He had explored sensual (of course) and sensory and sexual and erotic and titillating and carnal and on and on. None of the definitions had fit exactly the response he was looking for, but he had decided that knowing where he was trying to go was more likely to yield results than striking out blindly, although it was far less romantic.

In our third conversation, he said that he was very close to having a definition but that it was currently “too many words” for his comfort and “not exactly right yet,” and that he was trying to refine it. “More important,” he said, “it’s already affecting what I’m doing. I think about shoots differently, and my work is consistently getting closer and closer to what I want it to be. It actually helps my creativity; it’s like having an abstract aiming point. This is really a worthwhile exercise.”

And that last conversation made me think that this story was worth sharing. Many of us who work in the arts have never actually defined what it is that we are striving to accomplish. We move from project to project trying to realize the potential of each individual project without stopping to define exactly what we are trying to do. We, like the photographer, may not find an exact definition for what we want to do, but just the attempt to define our artistic goals can help focus our work.

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Stay Open

Sunday, 10. November 2019 23:10

One of the most difficult things for student actors to learn is to keep inventing. It seems that as the blocking (the pattern of movement) and the line memorization become solid, there is a tendency to want to also solidify their readings and business. As they solidify these aspects of their roles, these actors tend to close themselves off to other possibilities.

One supposes that this is because they come from backgrounds in church plays or high school where the philosophy of production was to rehearse until they got it “right” and then repeat that for the performances. A number of directors, myself included, believe that that approach is a formula for producing stale theatre; we believe rather that actors should create their characters anew at each performance and that rehearsals create the stable structure that allows this to happen. This approach works best if actors stay open to new insights and ideas and realize them on the stage.

Yet they continue to stop inventing as the rehearsal process moves along. And that’s a shame because trying one new thing, even toward the end of a creative process can generate new concepts and open never-before-thought-of understandings that can only enhance and enrich the creation—if the artist is open to it. Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, quoted in Austin Kleon’s recent blog post says, “Really be as naïve as possible, you know as ignorant as possible, because then you can keep yourself as wide open as possible for anything that could be of help, could be of use…”

The need to stay open applies to artists other than actors as well. Artists are notorious for tunnel-vision, particularly as they near the end of a project. But along with that single-mindedness, artists need to remain available to other ideas that may appear along the way. Ask any musician who does jazz improvisation; sometimes a new riff comes because one person in the group played a single note differently.

And this idea is not restricted to performing artists. A photographer may note the particular way a model turns or notice something in an image during post processing that s/he had missed before and suddenly new doors open up. The painter may slip and make an unplanned brush stroke and then realize that it was not a mistake, but one of Bob Ross’ “happy accidents.” A writer can mistype a word and suddenly realize a direction that s/he hadn’t thought of before. These opportunities would have been missed had the artist resisted a new idea because s/he was too close to finishing the work.

And many of us focus not only on the work, but on finishing the work—particularly as we get closer to that goal. Unfortunately, this state of mind works to our detriment if we refuse to let new intuitions into our creative process

As for finishing the work, Pablo Picasso has famously said that to finish a work is to “kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow…” The natural extension of this idea is that all art should remain unfinished, and since it is unfinished, new directions and modifications are always possible. Just thinking about our works this way can give us the freedom to continue to explore and invent, even as we move toward completion of a project. In other words, thinking this way gives us what we need: the ability to stay open to new ideas and insights all the way through the creative process.

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Stay Flexible

Sunday, 29. September 2019 22:18

One of the most difficult things for actors to learn is live in the moment and respond truthfully to fictional environment of the scene. This is particularly observable in the way they cling to old line readings even though the circumstances of the scene have evolved since they arrived at those line readings. The impulse is to do what has worked before rather than trust oneself to step into the unknown and offer a new response based only on characterization, character objectives, and the immediate circumstances.

This unwillingness of the actor to trust him/herself in the moment can based in a number of things: (1) it could be laziness or intransigence; “I learned it this way, and I’m not going to change now.” (2) It could be that the actor believes that s/he has found the “right” reading, and anything different would be “wrong.” This, of course, means that if the scene goes in a different direction from the way it was last performed, then that new direction is “wrong.” These are the sorts of actors who believe that the goal of rehearsals is to perfect the performance, which then stays constant no matter how many times it is performed. Experience teaches that this is not the best approach to live theatre (or probably any performing art, or perhaps any art). (3) It could be fear (about which I have written a couple of times: here and here). Stepping out into the unknown is scary business, particularly when there are people watching. What if one were to make a bad choice in front of an audience?

The actor’s reasoning could be based on any of these, or some combination, or something I haven’t thought of. Whatever the reason, s/he sticks to yesterday’s plan, fails to adhere to the truth of the moment, and creates bad art.

This is not just an actor’s problem. Almost all artists are faced with creative situations where success demands flexibility. The characters in a novel take the plot in a direction unforeseen in the writer’s outline. An unexpected heat wave modifies the malleability of the sculptor’s materials. Rain mars the outdoor wedding photography. Every artist is likely, in the course of creation, to encounter some factor that modifies the work being attempted. The artist can respond in the same way as the actors above, refusing/declining to change what they are doing or how they are doing it. Or they can be flexible, see the situation for what it is, and respond to that situation in a spontaneously creative way.

Undoubtedly, those who are more flexible and can respond to the moment will be more productive, since they don’t wait until conditions are restored to optimum; indeed, that may never happen. And it is likely that they will—in the long run—be more successful. The actor who only repeats the same readings at every performance is soon considered stale and boring. The photographer or painter who will only use the one lighting setup will likewise find him/herself producing repetitious and uninteresting work.

So whether we are actors or musicians or painters or writers or photographers or sculptors, we need to stay open to the possibility of momentary change and be flexible enough to embrace those moments, modifying our procedures and practices as the situation demands. The bonus is that being that flexible has the potential to open doors that we didn’t even know were there.

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