Everyday aesthics: part 1

I have an advanced degree in theatre history and criticism, and getting that involved discovering how to think about art. How others, like Aristotle, thought about art. The purpose of all those discussions of what makes something beautiful and artistic, was to help us students to know how we could develop a set or system by which we could see and discuss what sorts of things are beautiful in art, why we think that, and maybe create our own art from that. Aesthetics, in other words.

You are yawning already. Nobody cares about beauty in art, you say. For so many of us, artists and audiences, it is beauty if it sells and caters to the masses. Anyone who dares to go around this, is declared irrelevant. If you develop your own aesthetics or agree with Aristotle’s you have a system by which you can see and feel what art does for us humans. Being irrelevant is no longer a thing.

We are storytellers, all of us. We make up things all the time and then demand the rest of us not only see and feel what we see in feel. We demand that our view is the only reality. Storytellers, all of us.

I have brought up the notion of developing aesthetics in these articles a long while ago, but I called it developing taste (See:  How to develop artistic taste and Why I won’t watch Fashion Police anymore). I was afraid that a discussion of aesthetics would turn people away, but I have since refined that idea. I think you are perfectly capable of joining in this kind of discussion and refined thinking, and may want to, even though you are not part of a college course that you can’t wait will end. I think you already know that aesthetics have much to do with even our everyday lives.

Here’s my drastic example. Recently, someone I love and care about very much sent me some scenes from a play she is writing. Yes, I knew it didn’t have structure yet, but what turned me off and tuned me out was that the language and images, strong, even smoothly developed, were shocking to me. I know this person well enough to know there would be good reasons for this shock and awe, that there were issues developing that would be worthwhile to think about. It would say something beyond the words and images that would give me and others plenty to think about.

But I couldn’t get past those words and images and didn’t want them rattling around in my head.

I also felt assaulted by the blatant sexuality and vicious violence, like the blood of an animal the characters were cleaning on stage, spraying all over everything. I read on, but I did not like having those images in my head. I am old enough to have seen many things like that on the stage, in television series (Dexter and Vikings), movies, and in books, and I still don’t like how they make me feel. No, I don’t have to be able to live vicariously through that kind of violence to know that it actually comes from real, human life. Humanity is capable of indescribably horrors. War, for instance.

But I won’t have it in my life, in my head. I strive for peace and an elevated way of living, which knows those things and worse happen, but think the way to end war and aggression and hate is not to do it myself and not to deliberately bring it into my life. Having those things in my head is a way of normalizing war and aggression and hate. So I said, no, I would not get involved in shaping that play. I can’t have it in my everyday life. It goes against the grain of the aesthetics I have been developing and, as Heather Land would say, “I ain’t doin’ it!”

The point, so far, is not to define aesthetics or even bring to bear what my aesthetics concerning art is, but to bring up to you just how aesthetics affect our daily life. We so often let things wash over us, knowing it is not only the positive feelings and experiences that define us, but the unpleasant, negative things as well.

But we have a choice. We can tell our own stories and if some things make you way over-the-top uncomfortable, don’t do it. Tell a different and equally true story. You don’t have to stick with the purely negative. I won’t. It goes against my still developing aesthetics.

I want to explore aesthetics in these blogs, as it bears on our development as artists. I use development, because no matter how far we go with our art, there is always more to experience. And I promise, these discussions will have more to do with why I recently gave up watching Vikings, a truly great series, because I don’t want to normalize all those brutal and gory scenarios in my everyday life. You’ll note that I am not calling anything “immoral,” or calling for the end to them. I’m not calling them good or bad, right or wrong. They have every right to see the light of day and for people to like them. It’s more about aligning things to how I see life and my view of mankind, and about how it makes me feel about art, down where I really live.

Try this. The next time something gives you an emotional punch, let yourself experience it. Identify what you are feeling, and where in your body you feel it. Then let it go.

I used to think that how I viewed art was my own business. When back in the 60s or 70s, some guy was making religious icons out of feces, I said that’s not anything I ever want to see. I get that he was making us view religion a little differently, but those images were his business. As for my business, “I ain’t doin’ it.”

But this time, I have someone I care about making her art with her own aesthetics and I might have driven a wedge between me and someone who has trusted me and cared for me. I can’t help her develop this kind of art and that feels pretty lousy, but not as awful if I had to carry those images and language around in my head every day, normalizing them, pretending that all is okay with me.

I still think aesthetics is personal and maybe a driving force in the everyday life of an artist. But it also defines how we live our daily lives.

It’s all art.

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Bully-Girl strikes again

I laughed out loud at Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. I have to confess that even a mere fleeting thought about Melissa McCarthy gets me smiling. I laugh at her even in the most feeble of movies or television shows. I howl at the mere idea of Melissa McCarthy.

So that full disclosure out of the way, I was rolling in the aisles at her take-down of Sean Spicer, newly appointed White House Press Secretary. What she did was more than a satirical response to the madness let loose on our nation. It was also an embodiment of comic skills at their very best.

She also builds a character that is based on a bully-girl thing. It comes about, not from anger or hating, but from putting on a strong front for her vulnerability. Attack them before they attack you. That vulnerability always shows up and is what makes me want to laugh and be part of the mischief she is making.

Melissa McCarthy used her “bully girl” persona to push through a coded reality that many people pick up on, the sort of stuff that you read between the lines. The reality in this case is that some see Sean Spicer as a bully in his own right. He uses that “push” to get in front of the press and push them before they have a chance to do some pushing of their own, as if asking pointed questions is a form of bullying. As if they are all, to a man and woman, out to “get” the president. As if the press are spoiled children who need a time-out from abusive parents who act from whim rather than bothering with facts. They need reminding of the consequences that come from freedom of the press.

McCarthy captured the disdain Spicer and his boss have for the press by doing some pushing of her own. She is aggressively funny. Spicer is aggressively non-funny: a perfect target for McCarthy’s keen sense of bully-comedy.

Forget the politics. It is timing that is at play. Not political timing, but comic timing. Timing makes everything she says and does just plain funny. And McCarthy’s timing is exquisite. It is almost a living force. You feel the joke coming. You wait a beat and WHAM! She delivers. Sometimes the setup is so good, you don’t even care whether the joke is funny. You laugh because McCarthy won’t let you do anything else.

Take the way she handles props. She uses props like they are her playthings. But she uses them, doesn’t just give them a cursory touch. There is always a follow-through when she’s finished with them. She throws them around like they may actually be in her way, but it is a joyous thing to see her toss a paper representing the Constitution over her shoulder without a second glance (don’t get mad – this is part of the satire) and move right on to the next toss. Her timing and follow-through tips you off that this is funny.

Need a visual joke? She pulls a rope with a large knot in it across her body as she is saying something, the point of which, is the word “not.” There’s barely time to laugh because McCarthy is already out in front of the next joke.

Also amazing is what she does physically and emotionally to the words themselves. She tosses out words like she invented them and wants everyone to see how clever she is to use them.

But the best thing about McCarthy’s art comes when she is done with the bullying of comic ideas. After all the funny nonsense and push-back she indulges in, out comes this smile. A beatific smile. As if to let us know that all is right with the world after all.

Rock on, Bully-girl!

Next: Part Six of the Readers Theatre series: “6  Using Movement.”

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When acting isn’t

I saw the Golden Globes the other night, one of the many award shows this season that will have me glued to the tube. I was sitting there, spellbound, even though I never believe art ought to be a contest. Who is the best is not only impossible to decide, it is pointless. How can you say Casey Affleck had a better performance than Denzel Washington? You can’t. It is only a different performance, each affective in different ways.  The point is, I was affected by both performances, which is what they were supposed to do. Affect me.

So how does a group of people decide on the “best?” Much depends on who is doing the watching and the voting. It could have all come down to: which character and story you liked better, whose career needs a boost, what the temper of the times is, how to divide the awards among the artists so they will want to do more, and so on. In other words, there is no “best” performance. There are only performances that are noteworthy and effective.

So if you were going to assess an acting performance, what do you base it on? There lots of answers, and many of them have to do with emotional range and how technique is used to bring the character to emotional life. In other words, what did they do to bring life to the performance?

This year’s Golden Globes had many great acting performances. I could go on about all the things, the techniques, the raw emotions displayed by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, playing off each other, etc. Marvelous performances, enriched by how movement, bodily attitudes, gestures, facial expressions, etc. were used. The performances amounted to a master class in ensemble acting. Anyone could benefit seeing what these two were able to do.

Yet two other performances also stood out for me, not by what the actors did, but by what they didn’t do.

Casey Affleck, I suppose an actor whose time has come, won for the movie, Manchester by the Sea. Claire Foy won for her performance in the Netflix series, The Crown, playing a young Queen Elizabeth II.

They are marvelous, Affleck and Foy, in completely different vehicles, but their performances are hard to talk about. In both cases, we need to see and understand just how profoundly both characters, in different ways, are affected by what happens to them. In both cases, that something goes way beyond drawing on what acting classes taught. Both actors show profound emotion and thought processes without a lot of externals. Changes are happening internally and that makes it almost scary to watch. We see what these characters are made of and who they really are, not by what they do, but by what they don’t do.

Both actors internalized their characters and because there is a camera involved, an instrument that can pick up the tiniest movements. Even an eye flicker becomes a subtle way to let us know the character has just been dinged by circumstances. So Affleck can let us know by just looking away for a moment, that his character, a man already destroyed beyond any redemption, can still feel and that he can feel, puzzles him.

And Foy, by taking a deeper breath but keeping her body and eyes steady, shows us a monumental moment in which Elizabeth is no longer a proper wife and mother, but in that moment, had become queen of England.

Queen. She keeps steady, a little straightening of her shoulders, her eyes flick away for an instant in a glimmer of fear, and then eyes back and steady. This woman had changed in seconds and in ways us regular folk can only guess at. Yet we didn’t have to imagine, because Foy held us spellbound as we vividly knew, through that breath, that flicker of the eyes, just how much this young woman had changed. Just moments ago, she had to take in the loss of her dear father. He was king. And now, she must be queen. No breaking down, not for Foy’s Elizabeth. No flying out of control, no screaming about how it is not fair to ask her to give up her life. With a slightly elevated breath, her eyes open a little wider, she lets us know that henceforth, she will do her duty bravely and elegantly, and do it because this is what she was meant to do. It is no longer about Elizabeth the young woman and mother. It is about Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, and her duty to her people. There is no winning here. No grabbing at the gold ring. No Tweeting. There is only duty and breeding, qualities that manifest themselves quietly.

What Claire Foy didn’t do, in her pivotal moment, is to shudder, grab hold of her husband’s hand to steady herself, sit because she was so overwhelmed she had to keep from falling over. She didn’t reach for a handkerchief and dab her eyes to show her grief at the loss of her father or twist it to show her apprehension at suddenly being the queen of England.

What she did do, by not doing anything big, was to let us in on Elizabeth’s secret strength and her dedication to duty. We understood the woman and the queen in that, and so many other, moments of non-acting, and Claire Foy will forever be associated with this remarkable woman, Elizabeth II, Queen of England.

Yep, sometimes less is more.

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Manchester by the Sea

My friend is going to see Manchester by the Sea with her husband tomorrow and wants to know what I thought of it.

To echo Casey Affleck on Saturday Night Live recently, it is very sad. Very, very sad.

And I would add that there is no coming back from it.

What is this? A movie coming out at the holidays is supposed to entertain: and that usually means cute cartoon characters saying outrageous things to make us laugh, buildings, cities, countries, heck, whole worlds being blown up only to be saved by the superhuman hero or heroine.

So what is this movie? On the surface, it is as cold as Manchester looks in the winter shots. On the surface, it’s got nothing to feel good about, except that we get to see relationships working out the way they do in real life, without the neat tie-up of a happy ending, where the main character finds the path to true happiness. This guy Lee, played impeccably by Casey Affleck, can no longer even suspect that there is anything like happiness to be had and maybe that is how it needs to be for him.

I wondered what I would say to my friend. I know she could appreciate the artistry in this movie, but I don’t think she would appreciate that feeling good about what it is to be human, sometimes means confronting the truth about our lives, and that doesn’t feel good at all, except at an elemental level.

I also wondered when I would stop thinking about this movie. About how slow it went, about how devastating Affleck’s performance was, only to be stopped cold by a scene with Michelle Williams, who topped Lee’s devastation with her character’s own. The movie is worth seeing for that scene alone.

But would my friend and her husband like the slowness and the time it takes unfolding, detail by detail, details brought to enrich the movie by the director, Kenneth Lonergan? It looks and feels beautiful and mesmerizing and devastating. I thought about it a lot, far into the night so that I’m not sure what was dreaming and what was thinking.

Is it the best movie I’ve ever seen? Did I even like it? That seems beside the point. It is its own world, its own art. It just is and it is an experience all to itself. When I woke up for real and had a cup of coffee, still thinking about it, I realized what was happening. It was something I read about, the collective unconscious from Jung. We unconsciously share in the human experience and we inherit those experiences unconsciously. It’s why we seem to be born, not cavemen any longer, but with more refined sensibilities brought about by generations of shared experiences. There is something elemental about what we see and feel in this movie, something that goes deeper the lighthearted feel-good stuff as in It’s a Wonderful Life. There is plenty that we can feel – if not good feelings that everything will be okay, then at least the reassurance that there is a resilience to the human experience that is passed down. We get Lee because he is a refinement of past human wreckage and desolation that we all have inherited.

I’m going to tell my friend, “If you need to see the usual lighthearted, feel-good holiday movie, don’t see Manchester by the Sea. It will haunt you.”

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Carol comes to the suburbs: has anything changed since the 1950s?

It finally came to my town, a movie I would have bet money would never play here in my town, a bastion of conservative and “family values.” But it came and I went and counting me, there were maybe ten people at the matinee.

The movie began. Two beautiful people (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) sitting together at a restaurant, beautifully dressed in 1950s chic, smiling in that hidden, restrained way that tries not to give anything away, the director (Todd Haynes) taking time with both actors, capturing not so much what they were saying as letting their faces unlayer all that was going on between them. All done with face, eyes, and calm yet urgent body movements and gestures. The most overt movement was Cate Blanchett putting her manicured hand on Rooney Mara’s well-dressed shoulder. Mara looking away. Blanchett’ smiles reassuringly.

Then blurry scenes. Mara’s face in the window of a car, watching, quiet, waiting, wondering, while raindrops smear the outlines of her face in the frame. Two women watching, waiting for each other. Boyfriend, husband both bewildered.

The movie was like that. One gorgeous scene after another. Carol, directed by Haynes, in the spirit of another time, a faraway time, let Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, written under another name so her reputation wouldn’t be ruined by a lesbian novel that didn’t end in disaster for the women, unfold in the way it would have in the 1950s. Everything was hidden just under the surface, under conventional ways to behave, under conventional separation of the sexes and of the classes, and it would take much to bring unconventional thoughts and emotions out in plain view. The 1950s embodied “in the closet.” One had to fit in to a country recovering from a costly world war. One had to do one’s part in society, to keep up appearances, and that part included taking “family values” into everything one did. The family is everything and there is no room for anything else. So bohemians and beatniks gathered in enclaves like Greenwich Village to live their creative lives just out of society’s reach, and lived unconventionally and tried to change things.

The desperation Carol was so good at keeping in check finally erupts and off she goes, out of town and away from the family catastrophe building in the background, taking Therese with her.

All was fine with the audience. It was kind of mesmerizing, all that repression. It was hard to look away. Until the inevitable sex scene. Also shot beautifully, with no clear definitions of who was doing what to whom. Just two beautiful people giving in to a blurry necessity and inevitability.

And of the ten of us, four left during this one scene. Six of us made it to the end. Then another curious thing. No one but me got up to leave the auditorium. Did the other five not want to be seen as leaving this particular movie?

Nothing much changes in conventional society, not even that lesbians are now legit and are out and living happy, full, enriched lives, unlike Patricia Highsmith, the author who didn’t even dare to use her real name.

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The Force? Really?

The biggest opening ever! Billions of dollars made! Sensational!

So, should you see it?

There was a time, long, long ago, when I went to a new movie by myself, a matinee where I was one of only a handful of people. The geeks upstairs where I worked – you know,  those guys (no girls yet) who sat before little screens and large keyboards typing and joking away, doing who-knows-what, doing something the rest of us could only guess at – said in annoyingly knowing ways, “You HAVE to see this movie, Man!”

So I went. The movie was just opening. No reviews yet. No word-of-mouth. The movie was just opening. I went in and sat right in the middle of the theater. There were a few other brave souls scattered around. The movie began, with the opening screen:  words scrolling into the infinity of the stars over a dark background, setting the mood, telling us what we needed to know: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

I remember my jaw dropping and muttering something like, “Oh sh@*t!” Who had ever seen anything like it? And the movie hadn’t really started yet.

It only got better from there. There was a genuine plot. Interesting and unusual characters. Battles that were technologically better than anything I had seen. Genuine struggle between good and evil with a slight blurring of the two as to make it interesting and dramatic, though I would bet everyone in that theater and at subsequent screenings when Star Wars played to packed houses, that we were against the dark side and on the light side where the Force could make good things happen if we only used it.

So yesterday, 40 years later, I went to a matinee screening of a similar movie that was packed to the gills with people. I don’t know many geeks anymore, so there was only the product tie-ins on television and the buzz on the internet to inform me that this was going to be a BIG opening. It was. Big.

Why should you see Star Wars: The Force Awakens? After all those prequels and sequels to the original, that to me, were just ho-hum?

What’s the buzz?

Reasons to see it:

  1. Meet old movie friends who grew old just as you did. (You had to have seen the original to appreciate this point.)
  2. Characters are still multi-dimensional and exotic and interesting. Even the robots are wonderful.
  3. All sorts of objectionable language was mercifully absent.
  4. More father/son stuff explored, with a healthy dollop of mother thrown in.
  5. A woman embodies the Force that is awakening.
  6. Women in power (tempered with the bad guys still being men.)
  7. The Force is something that people can interpret according to their own experiences. For instance, I see Zen lurking in the background of the Force, a kind of balance in the Universe.

Why not to see it:

  1. Lots of things get blown to bits. How many movies have we seen where we think, “Lay off the explosives and get back to the plot!”?
  2. For you, science fiction isn’t your cup of tea.
  3. I can’t think of any other reason not to see it.
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Absorbing the slings and arrows

My play is getting a reading and maybe even a full-blown production. That’s nice.

I am getting criticism at every turn. That’s nice.

The play is still being tweaked by my readers. One fellow, a natural-born fact checker, found two historical mistakes. I welcomed that. Things can get by an author.

There were more comments, of course. These generous people were helping make the play better by pointing out what didn’t work for them and what did. For the first time ever, I allowed myself to hear the good, as well as the bad.

I also realized these comments weren’t directed at me. In other words, I am not the play. It is a thing “out there” and is a kind of product that I brought into being.

But lately, some comments have been sharp and seemed to be aimed at me, personally. “Oh, you can’t direct like that. Our people just want to do it the way we always do it.” These weren’t the exact words, but how I interpreted them. What our leader who said them meant that she would direct the play herself. I felt the usual shame and inner dialogue: “Why didn’t I get it perfect! What’s wrong with me! I can’t write worth a damn!” Notice how “I”, or my ego has gotten right in the middle of this. It is “me” who isn’t worth a damn, etc etc.

And outside the play criticism, I have taken hits. We are to give a kind of holiday performance. “Something entertaining! Skits!” our leader urged us. “Something fun!”

I had always wanted to read A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The language is so rich and flowing, it is perfect for oral interpretation. “No, no,” sternly, and giving me the up-and-down look reserved for a fashion faux pas. “Too highbrow.” Said like no matter what I suggested, it would go right over the audience’s heads. Said like, “I’ve got your number, you… you intellectual!”

Again, I felt shame. Why couldn’t I be just a regular person and like what everybody likes? Nothing wrong with skits except they bore me silly.

Again, I put “me” right in it.

And then, talking to a non-theatre friend about the play and the rehearsals and how I’m designing a new web site for my plays and novels, her cheery comment was how much she admired how “busy” I kept myself. I was some poor creature who needed a good pat on the head for staying out of trouble.

Good grief! “Busy?” I am dealing with meaningful art, I hope, and have set about inspiring others to pursue their goals in the performing arts, and to have some success of my own in the arts.

But once again, “me” got right in the middle of it.

But even as I felt bad, I had to admit that things are changing. I wallowed in my misery, all right, but this time it didn’t last. In the past, it would be weeks, months, a year, before I could bring myself to write anything. I wasn’t cutting it. I was being ridiculed as a pretender. Poor me!

No matter what my ego was whispering, I could not sustain the misery of feeling ashamed and believing I had no right to a life in art. It went away, even as my ego struggled to keep it going. Instead, I had to wonder if I was clairvoyant or something that I was so sure I knew that people were talking about my shortcomings 24/7. Am I really that important to people? Nope. That’s just storytelling.

But being told I kept “busy” forced me to reconsider my goals. I read them over and even my ego couldn’t dismiss any of them as “busy.” Therefore “busy” has nothing to do with my true self and Martha Beck’s North Star that I’m following. But this episode did prompt me to strengthen my goals and my resolve to see them through. And to see there can be a good side of criticism.

I have come to realize that I am an artist, maybe not a household name, but I am creative and can write fairly well and am getting better all the time. For every writer (even the great Steven Sondheim) knows it could always be better, which inspires one to get on with the next play or novel or blog or whatever.

The other effects of criticism

What has changed for me about these critical hits is that:

  1. I now find these comments only mildly annoying.
  2. The comments exist outside of my true self.
  3. I can make things better/different in some way because of them.
  4. There are just as many positive comments, but this time, I am listening to those, too.
  5. (DRUM ROLL!) The hidden good news underneath these comments and criticism, harsh or mild, have nothing to do with my true self, but all to do with the fact that I am in the game. I am a player. I have something “out there” that has gotten notice. I am creating things that other people have seen.

I win!

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Taking criticism

The very minute your work of art is read, or hung or built or whatever, and brought to public attention, it is no longer just your work of art. It is quickly taken over by criticism. Opinion. It may take different forms, but each person who views the work of art has an opinion.

Some criticism will be considered, with training and experience behind it. Some, not so much. And you, the artist, can control almost none of it. Fact of life: some people will like it, some won’t. Some won’t care one way or the other.

There is one more side, one that the artist can control, and that is your reaction to criticism. I have a sutra (from Deepak Chopra) that goes “Imagine that you are not affected by flattery and criticism.” Two sides of the same coin. Having contemplated the many sides of this sutra, I have concluded that there is always criticism and flattery and that they both mean about the same thing. The wise ones will tell you that you need to listen to both and reject both, but do it in a detached way. To detach means to take it away from your ego, the thing that will tell you that your whole identity is wrapped up in what people think and in the work itself. If you detach your egoic self from the actual work of art, you can use the criticism, good and bad, to make the work of art (not you!) better.

A theatre teacher I once had used to say that you need to listen to what people are really saying to make something better. She meant that if the blue-haired ladies in a matinee were not paying attention, you don’t blame that on them: too much to drink, they need a nap before coming to the theatre, etc. No. It meant that something in the performance or the play is not keeping them engaged. And that’s on you to find how to make it more engaging.

So it is with my site-specific play, which has undergone two readings and therefore two rewrites. I am writing it with the goal of getting it produced, which unfortunately for me, who is reduced to a blithering mass of jelly whenever a harsh word is hurled my way, means it must be exposed to someone outside my claustrophobic head. Outside, where it is my ego against the world!

What happens to me when I hear criticism? A darkness descends. First, it is a black blob of shame. I am greatly ashamed that I didn’t do better. That shame quickly deteriorates to something even blacker, like “I am not worthy of anything. I am a massive failure. I can’t write worth a damn and how could I expose my poor, sensitive self to all this? Why don’t I just SAY I am writing and leave it at that? Don’t show it to anyone and then no one would ever know that I am so incompetent. “

This is just the tip of the slimy blob of black goo that is oozing into something catastrophic: feelings that make me never want to write another word. Or show my unlucky face to the world ever again.

So this play and the play readings by my community theatre group, is more of an exercise in excising my inner demons. Is it working?

I heard what people had to say. Some of it was actually positive, but as usual, I dismissed those as just being kind to me, something I needed since I was actually so pathetic. Once again, the comments made me think of my incompetence. That I should not quit my day job. That I should catch up on old magazines. Forget that writing the play had been fun and engaging. Instead, just concentrate what a total failure it is, and how that failure reflects my inadequacies.

This time, though, I remembered something from a Coursera online course I took that said to be creative, you must fail creatively. If you don’t fail, you can’t make the thing better. So fail and fail often and quickly and do it with the idea that it is making your product better.

Fail creatively. I thought about this, still feeling bad, but this time, those bad feelings didn’t hang around long enough to overwhelm me. There was a new give and take. Failure and learning from it. If I listened to the comments – and none of them were nasty or mean-spirited – I had a real chance to make this play better.

So I worked on rewrites and they went so easily because this group had given me a really thoughtful road map.

Then came reinforcement to this way of thinking. There was my niece Sara’s graduation from SCAD and John Lassiter’s (of Pixar) words to the graduating class. Heck with the graduating class – his words were for me. What he said was a game-changer for me. He talked about failure and how you must fail and to do it quickly so you can get on with it. He also said something about doing something that isn’t getting approval, because you must do it, you want to do it, you see it developing, and that you like doing it. So you do it anyway, in spite or because of what people tell you.

Later, over lunch with Sara and my nephew Thomas, who is a good painter and artist, that we do it – make things – because we love the process of putting it all together, to tweaking it, to finishing it. It is our kind of fun and we love the process of making something. The product you made lives and deserves a beautiful life.

So fail and use that failure to make it better. Just do it and let the critics fall where they may. By that time you have had fun, done the best work yet, made the best thing yet, that criticism has nothing to do with you.

Off I go to the next rewrite. How good can I make this play?

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What is site-specific theatre?

In a nutshell, and nutshells work just fine for me, a site-specific performance of any kind—be it performance art called Happenings (1950s-60s) or flash mobs (2000s), or Stephan Koplowitz’s beautiful compositions that show dance at its most dynamic, or Punchdrunk’s production of Sleep No More—is a dynamic production that takes place, not in a conventional theatre, but at a location that has in some way inspired that production. It means that the location is an integral component of the play and that audiences will be embedded in some way.

In Sleep No More, the audience promenades through various rooms, at their own pace, to see scenes being enacted. It doesn’t matter which you see first. And you can leave when it strikes you to. (My niece, Sara, has gone to see it more than once. Sort of like Disney World, only in that you can’t really take in the whole experience in one day.)  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself part of the scene.

The site-specific theatre has two things that seem to me to be obvious. First, there isn’t a static stage or a static place for an audience to sit in comfort and anonymity for a few hours. If there is a conventional proscenium stage close by, it will not be used conventionally. The atmosphere of the play, the scene-ology, will be an integral part of this particular play and will be created by the site of the performance.

Second, the audience will, in some way, be brought into the production. It may be promenading from scene-to-scene, as in Sleep No More, or being part of the denizens of a neighboring forest as in a staging of ”A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle.” Or watching from a window in the Grand Central hotel as the Duchess of Malfi tries to escape with her children to the railway station in a staging of the Webster’s Duchess of Malfi in the UK . But one thing they all have in common is that no one will be sitting in seats in a theatre house.

So I am intrigued, so much so, that I am writing an original site-specific play. It is inspired by the Princess Place, a hunting lodge in Flagler County, Florida, built in 1889 and still standing.

Why the Princess Place? What does this production look like?

Next time: The Hunting Lodge: a site-specific work in progress.


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1: Theatre globalized

One of the things that set my teeth on edge, back when we technical writers copy-edited each other’s work, was when I came upon “utilize.” It was a perfectly good word when it meant making a thing do what it wasn’t originally meant to do: “I utilized the washtub as a temporary raft in the flooding backyard.” But not “I utilized the rowboat to row to the other side of the creek.” The washtub was meant to wash clothes in so if you need it as a raft, you are utilizing it. A rowboat, on the other hand, is meant to navigate over water, so you would use it to get to the other side of the creek. You get the idea.

Characterizing theatre as an example of globalization makes me wary. It’s the “ization” thing again. The theatre becoming world-wide? Wasn’t it always? Most of us read a Greek play or two in our day. How global can you get? Yeah, you can say that now. But there weren’t always handy paperbacks with Greek plays available.

Theatre usually starts locally, in a specific branch of civilization, mirroring back to the audience just what their culture looks like. So if theatre is local, how could it be global? Is global-izing just a modern way to say theatre is being used for something new? Like making money?

But wait. Sophocles may have been wright-ing plays for local audiences, but Aristotle, writing for the ages, built his notion of what makes tragedy on those plays of Sophocles and others. And we still mull that over when we are watching theatre critically. What the local Greeks, sitting in amphitheaters watching these plays, were seeing was something true about human nature, so true that it transcended that local culture into something that we still relate to and learn from today. You can watch Trojan Women in Greek and get the idea that war is hell on the people left behind, an idea that is still alive and true today in works like the movie American Sniper.

So globalization has something to do with ideas that resonate throughout cultures. Studying globalization more closely, though, in my readings for a Coursera course, “Theatre and Globalization,” I find that the concept also has an economic ring to it. Trade with other countries. Buying and selling internationally and forming world groups to facilitate this.

Take the world tour of The Lion King. At first glance, there is a mix of world-cultures, plus some world-class puppetry, but it remains a product of an homogenized version of what the United States and Disney’s idea of African culture is. The intent of the tour was to bring the show, as is, unmodified, uniform, to theatres around the world that could accommodate this production, without changing anything. And a global intent is there: bring an American brand (show) that would put butts in seats all over the world, and better yet, have it be the means to open those international wallets to all the peripheral goods and services on offer with the Disney logo. Not a bad business strategy. And an example of economic globalization.

Is there more to say about theatre and globalization than economics? There is that exchange and assimilation of ideas to explore.

Next up: The Hull House Theatre: Is Little Theatre local or global?

(Got comments? Email me at m.turner@theatre-follies.com)

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