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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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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What is happening to my play???

I am writing a site-specific play. It revolves around the living history represented by the oldest standing structure of Flagler County, a place now called the Princess Place Preserve. Tourists come here to see unspoiled Florida, with much of how it was in the past preserved. You can fish, spot birds, kayak, and even bring your horse for an extensive trail ride.

The play is fiction, but revolves around the Cuttings, as I imagine them, who were real and the hunting lodge Henry Cutting built at what was then called Cherokee Grove, in 1889 with his new wife Angela (later to become the princess of Princess Place.) The play is peopled by characters, all ghosts, people who might have been to Cherokee Grove at some time around the turn of that century.

The play is meant to be acted on three sides of the wrap-around porch overlooking a creek where a boat is docked. The audience sits or stands where they can see what is happening, and if they like, become part of it. The audience “promenades” to all three sides to see three different groups, classes really, of people acting out their relationship to the Cuttings and to the lodge itself.

My dilemma is this: I want this play to be something that is not naturalistic, that cannot be easily transferred into a theatre house, with realistic sets designed around it. I want it to evoke the past, for audiences to see that some class-related issues have yet to be resolved in our modern times, and that there is a future for these characters, as there is a future for this unspoiled bit of Florida. What happens in the future is up to the present. To do that, the audience must get involved and invested.

Noble thoughts, all. But how to convey all of that in a play that people who are work-shopping it for me do not see? They are reacting to it as if it were to be enacted by our theatre group in our theatre. How do I get them out of the theatre and to see what I see? Let’s face it. “Site-specific” isn’t exactly a household word, even among theatre folk.

Actually, there are two issues. I have already mentioned that it is hard to convey the concept of site-specific and to get comments and discussion about how best to act the play at the site.

The other issue, according to one of our most experienced actor and director, (and considering we are all past 50, this is experience is formidable) is that I need to work on bringing characters to life with more effective dialogue. Repetition, making the same point over and over, is an old habit learned in my teaching days. Doesn’t work in a play.

I think maybe I can do something about both issues. I may not succeed with the dialogue part completely, but I do know I can pare down all that repetition.

As to the site, I just had the bright idea to get this director and a few people to read the latest incarnation of the play at the site. Brilliant? We’ll see.

See also:              What is site-specific theatre?

Playwriting workshop at the community theatre

The Community part of community theatre

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2: The Hull House Theatre: Is Little Theatre local or global? Or something else?

Theatre is and it isn’t globalized. And it is and it isn’t all economics and trade. (See “Theatre globalized.”) Mostly through touring and immigration, forced or chosen, cultures from different parts of the world began to have a real impact on other cultures it came in contact with it. There have been migrations, like the massive ones to America at the end of the nineteenth century that brought people from all over the world and with them came their culture and therefore their theatres to large U.S. cities.

And what about the place of the Little Theatre movement in America? This movement started roughly around 1910 when theatre courses found their way into universities and colleges. Was theatre becoming globalized or were Little Theatres firmly in the hands of local people?

Massive immigrations, as the ones affecting the United States in the late 1800s, brought with it a cultural de-territorialization, a term along with reterritorialization (there are those pesky “izations” again) helps define globalization. When people migrate to different areas around the world, they bring much of their culture with them. De-territorialization. As when a group of Greek immigrants living in Chicago put on Greek plays in Greek, with Greek staging, for a Greek-speaking audience. They have come to another country but cling to their culture as a way of keeping powerful links to who they are.

But just because a Greek play is being put on in Chicago, doesn’t make it global. It gets closer to globalization when the reterritorialized part takes over. That would happen when the old culture gives way to new influences from the new country’s culture. For instance, an assimilation might take place with other immigrants in Chicago, and maybe this same play that originated with the Greek immigrants, would take on American, Irish, and other actors. It might be staged on a proscenium rather than an amphitheater. It might be now in English. It maybe goes on tour to Europe and Asia. Now you begin to see theatre globalization.

Take Chicago. The Hull House sprung from Jane Addams’s vision to help these immigrants cope productively with the changes they faced in America. What was happening to many of these immigrant communities in those days was that they lived in the worst parts of town and faced even further decay of their community and families. Jane Addams was determined to change that. What made a big difference was that she combined social services with a preservation and expression of culture. The Hull House Theatre sprung up, thanks to the efforts of other people, such as Laura Dainty Pelham, an actress, who has also been credited with starting the Little Theatre movement in America. But the people themselves brought what theatre they knew with them to America and so to Chicago.

In 1889, it was Greek immigrants themselves, living on the Near West side of Chicago, where Hull House was located, who put on Greek plays, in Greek, staged by Greeks, at the Hull House. This is an example of de-territorialization, when people migrate and bring their culture with them, a kind of globalization in the sense that it encompasses the world culture.

The Little Theatre movement didn’t just spring up all around America spontaneously. There were many global influences at work, and many local ones.

Next up: 3: Other global influences strengthening the Little Theatre movement.

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

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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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Changing the Code: Think about the theatre problem in a metaphor

Hamlet: ….Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good
or bad but thinking  makes it so. To me it is a prison.

And so it goes for me and maybe you. I am stuck and I think Hamlet had it right. It’s those stories you make up in your head to explain to your ego why you feel so bad about something – that often make up the bricks and mortar of your own prison.

How to break out?

Here’s what is happening. I am stage managing for the first time in many years at a well-run community theater. Except it is all turning sour because I am not doing things the way they were always done to keep this a well-run theater. So how can do what is expected and still feel good about myself and my abilities? Who I am?

I know what I am doing and maybe you do this, too. I am stewing, going over in my head, what I said and did, what they said and did, who’s at fault, and how the hell can I get out of this.

My first thought is “fight or flight” with “flight” being my favorite choice. I can just give it up. Take my dolls and dishes and just go home and stay there. Safe.

But if I cut and run, what do I learn? Do I ever get what I want? Because, the plain truth – not just in my head as a made-up excuse – is that if I run, I get nothing. Not even the satisfaction of “showing them how wrong they are.” I cut and run and I show them just what a sniveling coward I really am.

My choices?

  1. I stay with this job for another interminable two months and be miserable.  Being miserable or being cheerful and seeing this job as an adventure is up to me. My choice. I think: I need to change something – some code in my system of applications I have learned and built over the years – just gets reinforced and the next time the going gets tough, I’ll do the same old thing over and over again. You know, the thing that has never gotten me anywhere near where I see myself heading. I cut and run and I’ll have to start over somewhere else. I will never reach my goals.
  2. It hits me. Change the code! How? Think about it differently. As in, a different kind of option.

I read Martha Beck’s life coaching books, a little every morning to get my day started on the right foot. I remember that she said one of the ways to begin to solve a problem is to think about it as a metaphor.

I laugh because the first thing that pops in my head is that this stage managing experience is like Alice in Wonderland being at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. She knows what a tea party is and how to behave at one, but this one has its own set of mad rules, things that she doesn’t know or understand and that gets her in all sorts of trouble, leaving her wondering “what the heck did I do?”

If you read the last post about all the trouble I got into letting the director pour a glass of wine at rehearsal, you know that I am knee-deep in a mad tea party. I don’t know the rules at this theatre and everyone assumes I do.

Yes, very well, you may be saying, but what does one do about changing things? Memorize all the rules? Maybe, but I realize that isn’t the trouble. The trouble is that I made one mistake and now everyone is out to make sure I never make another one. In a business situation, this would be like micro-managing me. Do you want to know just how bonkers that makes me? (Maybe another time….)

So the tea party thing doesn’t quite do it. This morning, I had an “Aha!” moment. What is going on with me and the theater is like an ANTM moment.

I watch reruns of America’s Next Top Model to get tips on how to coach young up-and-comers in the performing arts and to get good business tips from Tyra Banks, who is brilliant at both.

I am laughing. I am so like those girls who can’t take the heat – from the judge’s criticism or from the cattiness of the other girls in the model house. The last episode I watched featured a major meltdown from this arrogant girl who not only had an answer to everything any of the judges said, but went on the attack and shouted out insults to anyone who dared say anything at all. Her photo that week was actually very good, but it amounted to nothing because she stormed out of the room screaming at the producers that she wanted to go home and to go home NOW! High drama and good for television, but not so much for her modeling career.

Really, who hasn’t wanted to do just that? Tell off your oppressors and ending it with “I have to be true to myself?”

The lesson Tyra wants these would-be models to learn is that modeling (i.e., the performing arts) is just a business and the client hires a model for a very specific reason that will help them sell their brand. They are not going to hire someone who is nasty and uncooperative. Or who wants to sell themselves. It is the wrong business to be in if you want to go off on your own tangent.

The problem with this is, I have also read about people who have made it to the top of their profession by sticking to that thing that makes them unique. People like Amy Poehler who stuck to her brand of comedy even as Those Who Know told her it would never work. And Joan Rivers who occasionally offended me with her dirty comparisons but made me laugh anyway because that is who she was and for her kind of humor, she was brilliant.

Am I like those girls who can’t take criticism in ANTM? No, I don’t scream insults, but I sure as heck want to go home! And ruin a perfectly good second career as a stage manager/theatre person/drama coach. Because what these people want is 1) a well-run show and 2) managed the way they know and understand. Being the new person is always hard, but if I want to ever stage manage there (or anywhere) again, I need to bring not only my A game, but find useful ways to blend my A-game brand to produce what they, the client, wants. Their brand.

I have to change the code in my head to something more effective. I need to see mishaps with humor and to understand where others are coming from, their insecurities blending in with mine. I need to be more compassionate (to myself as well) and to keep the goal in focus and when the stories in my head are getting in the way, to gently change those stories in some small way and keep doing it until the code in my brain changes.

I imagine myself taking criticism, not as a personal attack, but as a way to keep becoming a more effective stage manager.

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What stops you from writing?

Things are coming along with the play. Right.

Usually, the “right” is sarcasm, my favorite kind of self-put-down and also the kind of put-down used by those who feel they have no power and have to use shame. But this time, things really are coming along.

  1. I learned a while ago that to write anything, do anything creative, I have to learn to sit still. Such as: sit in front of a blank Word document until I fill up x-number of lines. With something resembling sentences.
  2. Play Solitaire on the computer only when I get half-way finished with what I have outlined as today’s work.
  3. I learned a while ago that to write anything, do anything creative, I have to be alone and quiet at the same time every day.

So yesterday, my goal was to type the notes I took last weekend when I was visiting my niece in Savannah at SCAD. Sounds like a big bore, just typing, but what happened was I found myself starting to flesh out some of what I thought were mild meanderings about the play and where it takes place and even some character notes. A real surprise that there was more behind those notes.

If you are writing, or working on something creative, what nonsense comes up in your head that tries to sabotage you? How do you handle it?

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I’m writing a play

Again. I have three started. But other things (this blog, household chores, keeping up my end socially, just plain scared that I can’t do it, have kept me from completing them. True, I have written two, but, well, the less said about them the better. The one I picked up again to work on was inspired by August: Osage County. I had to see it. I had to see Meryl’s performance (phenomenal as usual) and why Julia Roberts got the part that everyone knows should have gone to the great Amy Morton, whose performance on Broadway bowled me over. In the movie, I got to hear Tracy Letts’ brilliant dialogue and plotting and as I left the theater, I wanted more than anything to do that, too.

So I picked up Sandy’s Swamp again. (BTW: I named my cat Sandy after the main character, a good old Cracker guy who used to play football for the University of Florida in The Swamp.)

Other things are at work, though, besides just finding the resolve to let this play come out and frolic in the sunlight. Other things that I don’t ask for. Like sarcasm. Remarks that sound encouraging but really mean that who are you to make art? Attempts to subtly and psychologically sabotage me. I swear, all you have to do is announce your intention to do something that revolves around art instead of something you can use in the house, and all this stuff comes out of the woodwork.

Yeah, people first give you That Look that begins with admiration and the murmuring of “I wish I could do that” but soon turns into “Sounds like a waste of time, to me. Why not take up a hobby? Like building an island out of used plastic bottles?”

But I have begun again. For real.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

********

Let’s have some discussion. I’d love to hear from you if you are writing or have written a play, movie, teleplay, music, choreography, whatever.

Question 1: What was the reaction from people around you as you were writing it? (Positive or negative or both.)

Question 2: Would you write again? why?

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Developing taste: Why I won’t watch Fashion Police any more

There are so many reasons to see or not to see certain things. How do you decide for yourselves whether you should watch or not watch The Walking Dead? If you remember, I recently told you not to watch it: too gory, I said. So what, you probably said. Why aren’t I going to watch Fashion Police anymore?

What you watch turns into what you like to watch and that, along with why you like to watch, helps define your taste in art. I have no problem with a moral or ethical or religious or philosophical reason to watch or not to watch, but I would suggest that there are other criteria to consider. Artistic criteria that will form your taste and that will turn into what kinds of things you make as a working artist.

Zombie, vampire, violent shows exist and no amount of protest is going to stop them from airing, not while people are willing to watch them. To ban them is censorship and that’s what I want to talk about: censorship, which comes from outside forces vs making choices that will develop your own taste, choices that come from within you and will mean something to you and your art.

Disturbing things exist all around us. I know two friends of mine who will not let the Internet into their homes lest it corrupts their young children. I get that. They really are too young to filter much of what they would be experiencing online. But at your age, I would hope you are learning what to let into your lives and what to reject, what to keep out, and what your reasons for those choices are. The choices you make help you to develop taste and your artistic sensibility.

We are all affected by what we see. Good to know there are zombie movies and TV shows in the world. Probably somewhere there are even zombie paintings and sculpture and I can only guess at how many music groups call themselves The Zombies. You need to know a zombie when you see one, know that you are in for an excess of cruelty and gore and dehumanization, and you need a way to decide what that excess does to your artistic sensibility.

The point of art is to take you beyond the material to a higher level of understanding, a way to experience something on a spiritual and emotional level. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever felt bliss or a heightening of your senses or a rush when you looked at a beautiful sculpture, a painting of a sunset, a song sung so purely and heavenly, it is hard to imagine it having come from a human voice. I once thought that the tenor Luciano Pavarotti’s voice must be what angels sound like.

But what if all you ever see are people cutting each other up? Or people being cruel and inhuman to each other? Or only listening to music that sounds sharp and corrosive? I guarantee you will never be able to hear or experience the angel-ness of Pavarotti.

To experience art on the level it is meant to be felt and understood, you need to train. You need to develop taste. That means you have choices to make. You won’t get carried away with soprano Anna Netrebko singing “Addio del passato” from Verdi’s La Traviata if you hate opera, especially if you hate opera because all you ever listen to is head-banging heavy metal. To appreciate Anna Netrebko you have to develop your sense of taste for music, for what the human voice is capable of, and for what good acting is. That means you have to listen to opera.

What you watch is happening to you on some emotional and intellectual level. Your next experience will be built on your last one, and that goes for your emotional life. This is why I say, Beware of what you watch. What you watch, read, listen to is what your future sensibilities are build on. Are you really ready to absorb gory zombies for any length of time? Will you be in danger of turning into a zombie? Not hardly, but you will become a person who is immune to the horrors of life rather than tuned in to the things that heighten our human experiences to a sublime level. It is why Les Miz, about real human hardship, can be so sublime. Victor Hugo, rather than only giving us the depravities of human misery, elevates it to a higher level where we see, feel, and experience hope breaking through. He also makes you feel that the ordinariness of your own life has a larger purpose than just scrambling for that next crust of bread.

I have watched a few episodes of The Walking Dead and I gotta say, it is gross.

But.

I found after I got past the grossness, or at least put it in the background of what I was watching, I gotta say it was compelling and that it is about more than hideous zombie creatures. The writing is good. There is more going on than destroying gross zombies to survive. What will happen next is a good thing in television writing and these writers get that in spades.

How do I know how to choose or not choose to watch? My past experiences with making choices that have helped develop my taste: 1) I watch many television series (I’m still grieving that The Killing was canceled), 2) read and study how to write plays and screenplays and novels which involve plotting, character development, story arcs, and 3) read a whole lot of murder/suspense/thriller novels (along with spiritual stuff.) In other words, what I do regularly has prepared me to look past the zombie craziness and see art.

I have recently vowed not to watch Fashion Police. Why? No zombies, there, let me tell you, but here’s the thing: I love the red carpet at award events. I love to hear how people who know rate what I’ve seen and even though we don’t always agree, at least these people have a frame of reference to talk about fashion as art and can make me see clothes and accessories in a different way. They elevate my awareness of the art of fashion. I don’t even mind that these same people are not above taking cheap shots at those designing and wearing fashion. I get it. To dish is human.

But.

Comedy, like fashion, is an art. I have always liked Joan Rivers, think she’s funny, that she’s a mentor to other women in comedy (I get this from an episode from Kathy Griffin’s reality series―another rude comedian, but without a mean spirit), that she can sometimes fire off a joke at someone’s expense. On Fashion Police, she has taken all the joy out of what the other three on the show have to say and has gone way out on some sleazy, crude limb where she sits all by herself.  A little sleaze to get us to see the bottom of the human condition but with no redeeming purpose. Victor Hugo she is not.

The jokes I’m talking about are badly constructed and when she finally gets to the punch line I find myself feeling crummy, like I’ve got indigestion. No more joy at how wonderful/awful the people looked. No more listening to intelligent and knowledgeable comments that would make me see fashion differently. Nope. I am just dwelling on that last non-funny joke and watching as it shuts down the fashion discussion. The fashions and the people wearing them now seem to exist just to set up another crude and unfunny joke. I object. I don’t mind hearing a joke that fails – even Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes had some jokes that fell flat though I can’t off-hand think of any. (Even now, thinking of those two, I am smiling, glad I watched the show, glad I saw comedy that worked.)

When I think of Joan Rivers on Fashion Police, I feel all frowny and want to change the subject. I don’t feel elevated in any way. I have learned nothing but how it feels to be immersed in smut and I don’t like what it does to me. If I choose to experience much more of that, I doubt that I would be able to take joy in, say, Anna Netrebko’s easy and funny acting style in the comic opera L’elisir d’amore.

It isn’t that smutty jokes are immoral to me. In some religions maybe they are and I respect that, but for me, what happens to my sensibilities listening to that shit (and believe me, this is the least of what she is dishing out to us) I sink down into a place where I don’t want to be for any length of time. (Did you laugh at “shit” or did you roll your eyes or did you frown? Whatever your reaction, you are expressing taste.) I don’t want to pore over this kind of comedy.  I want to know that comedy like this exits, know it when I hear it, and that it maybe even serves some purpose I don’t see, but I don’t want it to take the edge off of my taste for comedy that brings me  enjoyment like being able to laugh at Fey and Poehler’s well-constructed, funny, and well-delivered jokes. I want to hone my comic appreciation, not dull it. Joan Rivers in this incarnation isn’t honing anything for me, even though I can almost hear her tell me, “Oh, grow up!”, which is funny.

So don’t watch The Walking Dead until you are able to handle all they dish out. Watch it if you must, but do it with awareness. Know what you are seeing and feeling and why. Don’t watch it as a zombie would.

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