What can the arts learn from softball?

I’m watching softball—the Women’s College World Series—and have watched almost every game that led up to the Championship. Even the one that went 17 innings. I’m a fan.

I like softball for many reasons, mostly because I get it, more than I get baseball. I can see what the pitcher is doing. People get more hits. When the ball leaves the infield, I can follow it right out of the park, because everything is closer in softball and the softball is big.

Best, though, are the backstories about coaching and players, why they play, what they hope to gain, and underneath it all, what leadership means in a way that really counts.

How do you keep a squad of people, each with their own reasons for playing, focused on a larger goal? Each has personal goals—an extension of their career in the pros, coaching a team of their own, going into sports management, or into a career in politics or medicine or whatever they can bring all they learned about working together to bear on changing the country and maybe the world.

There is talk by the announcers of “leadership” in the team. A pitcher usually has it. You’ll often hear a winning pitcher credit her teammates, that she was successful only because they “have her back.” They talk of loving the game.

A regular player often emerges as a leader, just by igniting the team’s enthusiasm for playing the game. Kaitlin Lee, Ole Miss’s ace pitcher, does this. Just watch her in the circle, smiling, even dancing, acknowledging everyone on the field, making everyone feel like they are really contributing, and they are, maybe even surprising themselves as to how far they came in the run up to the World Series.

The coaches, of course, are cited as leaders. Larger goals, those beyond winning the next game, may come from the head coach. Besides instilling good sportsmanship and developing innate skills, the coach needs to do it to enhance the reputation of the college for its commitment to sports as a way to develop students, and to keep money flowing in to support those efforts.

Some coaches, the really great ones, do it for something even higher: to keep the game going. If you win this season, loads of people will be watching next season to see how your team does, and then may look to the Pros to watch softball at an even higher level. The game gets its own webcasting channel you can watch almost every game on. Softball gets stronger and more popular. Even better players are then developed by even better coaches and the audience for the game grows. It is even going to be part of the Olympics in 2020.

So the performing arts? Keeping it going? Of course, every hit show on Broadway makes that the theatre capital in the USA. Every time there is a good production of a significant play or musical, it makes the theatre popular and thus, stronger. It doesn’t happen just in New York. Just as community theatre is a local place to see those same shows put on by your neighborhood talent, regional theatre boosts the non-Broadway appetite for theatrical excellence.

Everyone, pro or not, who pays attention to details that make the production memorable, keeps the game going. The theatre will be stronger in the community, in the region, on Broadway, in London or Delhi or Beijing, because of the care of the theatre coach who keeps everyone inspired and working to their potential by seeing how each individual contribution makes the whole better. The leader lets each person bring out their unique and individual talent for the good of the whole production.

And the leader can come from anywhere. It isn’t always the person being paid to lead. You could be a leader by doing your job well and communicating your intentions to make this the best show you have ever done. It happens when you set an example by listening and seeing and understanding what those around you are doing, cheering them on by picking up where they leave off. You know it isn’t all about you, but what talent you bring to the production makes the whole better, especially if everyone else “has your back,” which they will when they see you have theirs.

The game of theatre goes on, way past an individual ambition to be a Broadway star. It becomes timeless because of the efforts of those who see beyond.

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Theatre is a business

It may come as a surprise that I sometimes talk about theatre as a business. If you are interested in pursuing theatre and have already taken theatre classes, they most likely emphasized the creative and artistic side. All very good, but even the most creative and artistic people eventually have to make business decisions and when are hired to perform and find themselves having to fit into a reporting structure, something typical of business.  It also will give you a greater appreciation of how the performing arts fits into our lives.

As most artists find out, there are always career decisions to make. For example, let’s say you want to be a costume designer. If you are serious about it, there are steps you would do well to follow: take drawing classes so you will be able to sketch your creations, maybe take fashion design so you know what goes into designing clothes and accessories.  History classes are a must to not only find out what people in all levels of society were wearing, but even more important why those particular clothes. Did you know that there are thoughts, even philosophies behind what we wear? You’ll take theatre classes, become familiar with plays from different periods, and when you can, sew costumes, become an assistant to a designer, and learn as much as you can about the theatre and the performing arts. Oh, yes, and a little talent and lots of the right personality traits would also help.

Mapping out a strategy to get to where you want to go follows a business model. And if you are an artist, these steps and strategies won’t take anything away from your innate talent one little bit. It will make you hirable. Or at the very least, a more informed theatregoer.

And guess what? Summer and maybe more free time is almost here. The perfect time to get busy and to map out your strategy to meet your goals, whether in the performing arts or where ever you want your life to take you.

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Hit record

For a while now, I have been working on a pet project: online coursework for high school performing arts classrooms. It would reverse the classroom model: Students would take the core part of the class on their own time and online, but would use scheduled class time to work with the teacher and each other on projects that would reinforce what they were learning.

Coming up with projects has forced me to face the reality that in spite of the timeliness of online coursework, I have been relying on outdated models for the assignments.

But. I have been preaching to my niece that it is her generation who will innovate, who will see the possibilities between old theatre and what will be. She is the future, I tell her. My role, I tell her, is to help her see the possibilities.

So. I read about a new television network in The New Yorker in an article by Emily Nussbaum, the television critic who I like a lot. Pivot the network is called. It’s supposed to be for the younger generation and even though the likes of me watches it, I guess it is. I’m hoping it will get me to see things differently. Explore the possibilities.

I now have an idea to include in assignments where students make performance works of art using the internet and all the production tools available to almost everyone. And to do it through collaboration with each other in one theatre class, or several in one school, or – what-the-heck- students in other schools all around the country. Each class would contribute part of the whole project. It would be managed and directed by the teachers – or even me – who would help students put the project together into a unified and exciting whole.

Guess what? Joseph Gordon-Levitt is already doing it, though on a professional level. On Pivot. He has a production studio called HitRECord that draws from contributors all over the world. His studio puts it together and the results are new, fresh, innovative, and fascinating.

So there you have it. The future is already here and why couldn’t this online class of ours do something innovative? Or maybe something that brings together live performance mixed with technology?

One of the modules I’m developing introduces the designers who work in the theatre to the students and one of these designers is a Media or Digital Media designer. Who knew? In my day there was no media to design and theatre people made the sets by putting pieces of lumber together, covering them with heavy canvas, and painting these pieces to look like what they were supposed to be. Back in the day (don’t you love that expression?) the only time I saw media on stage was in a new play by Grace McKeaney at a theatre near Chicago. She had video playing on screens behind the live actors and it was exciting. But it didn’t become a trend.

But now, whole sets are digital or have digital accompaniments. Happens all the time. Can we do this? Is it something anyone out there would like to work on? Can it be something that we would need a Digital Media designer for? Or do you know a student or two who would know exactly what to do?

Any thoughts or observations?

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Wanting a career in the performing arts

Just wanting it isn’t enough. There is wishful thinking and there is intention. You may see yourself getting curtain call after curtain call, getting your due for the talent you possess.

And what happens when you don’t get cast in the Fall musical? Some people think this is a wake-up call to give up these silly dreams and go do something practical. Like study quantum mechanics.

I got news for you. It is a wakeup call but it has nothing to do with talent or sex appeal or even wishful thinking. If you want a career in the arts, you must be willing to turn that dreaming into practical intention.

There is a big difference between thinking about doing something and your intent to do it. Just look at the law. You can go to jail for planning to harm someone. They call it “intent.” You won’t go to jail for having a random thought about how life would be without that annoying someone around you. The “intent” is only wishful thinking.

This brings up that pesky word “planning.” This is a word right out of a business model where if a company wants to make better and cheaper widgets and corner a market on them, they have to do some “planning” that takes it out of the wishful stage and puts it squarely on a course to succeed. What happens between the wishful – gee, I “wish” I could be in the movies – to taking an acting class? You have thought about the steps it takes to be an actor and turned dreaming into practical intent.

I had a discussion with my hairdresser – a talented person if ever there was one – about why she was not cutting hair in Hollywood for the movies, something she has wanted to do forever. It all boiled down to not wanting to take seriously the business end of creativity. She didn’t like having to “marketing” herself. She is a creative person and “marketing” is something she thinks she couldn’t possibly be good at. It was all about business. Like working in a salon isn’t business? And she said this after handing me her business card, something she had designed herself.

Here’s the thing about performance art and marketing. I have a friend who acts in Chicago. She relentlessly sends out postcards to producers and casting directors that has a head shot on the front and what role she is doing or has done recently. She asks them to come and see her in whatever the current thing is. I got more news for you. That is marketing and my friend has worked almost non-stop in professional theatre – with awards and everything – for almost 30 years.

I think the reason my hairdresser doesn’t like the business end is because she was told or tells herself that business is directly opposite to what is artistic. What we aren’t taught – in high school, anyway – is that business and art go hand in hand.  Just watch Nashville if you want to get up close and personal with the business end of show business, in this case the country music industry.

So I guess the question for you is, “What are you doing today that is on your plan for a career in the performing arts?”

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How to prepare for the fall

Here it is July and you probably think I’m jumping the gun a tiny bit, coming up with stuff you should do to prepare for the fall. But here goes, some points to consider as you ramp up for another school year:

  1. First, I’ll ask you: what did you do toward your career this summer? I know you did a lot of frittering away the time, or maybe you had a job, or maybe you did a lot of chilling. But I’m also hoping that you got involved somehow in a theatre experience. The best, of course, is taking part in a live play or being an intern or taking a performing arts class of some kind such as dancing, singing, acting, how to build sets, makeup, costume design, whatever.

It could be you only had time to read something theatrical – even if it was only movie, play, or television criticism, though I would like for you to have read something about the areas of the theatre you are interested in.

  1. So why not write it down? All the things you did. Go into detail if you must, but at least put something down that you can go back and look at when you are planning your next summer. (You do keep a journal, don’t you? If not, start one – call it whatever you like, maybe My Design for My Life in the Performing Arts.
  2. Find out what the fall play or musical will be. Yes, do it right now! Call someone who would know, check the drama club/department/class web site. It could be posted there.
  3. When you know what the play is, READ IT! Yes, another reading assignment. (I hear grumbling. Just do it! You’ll thank me later.)
  4. After you read the play:
    1. If you are an actor, figure out if there are any parts right for you or that you would like to play. (There can be more than one.)
    2. If you are a designer, pick one character and design costumes, makeup, hair for that character. Something you can show someone.
    3. If you are a set or lighting designer, pick one scene to design. Something you can show someone.
    4. If you are a choreographer and want to choreograph or at least be an assistant, pick one dance and design it to show the director or whoever what you can do.
    5. If you are a technician, try to gauge what jobs the play calls for (stage manager, running the light board, changing scenery, doing make up, doing animation or sound or whatever the play needs.
    6. (This one is a “thing” of mine.) Back up on a CD or thumb drive all you theatre stuff. Especially if you are a writer or designer or actor and you have notes, sketches, thoughts, observations, journals, whatever. Get it backed up and do it regularly. I know a designer who had a great portfolio ready to show in his job hunt, who had a hard drive crash and instead of landing that great job this summer, he’s trying desperately to recreate that portfolio. Back up all of your stuff. RIGHT NOW!

The point is, come to the first fall tryout prepared. And when I say prepared, I mean have an idea how you where you can contribute and what exactly you hope to achieve this fall. Be specific.

Don’t worry about acting like a theatre geek. This is about you and your career, not about Them. (We all have Thems in our lives. Mine are agents and publishers. Yours may be that cheerleader squad. It is our life, not Theirs.)

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More on a mindful summer

Here are some of the things you can be doing now so you’ll be ready to catch the next wave of your dreams.

It continues the thread I started in “Zen and the art of summer” (May 6, 2013).

Live mindfully

Make choices with your career in mind: i.e. know that if you are to be a disciplined artist, it might not be a bad idea to start training now. I’m talking about the simple things, like when someone asks you, “Supersize those fries for you?” you don’t automatically answer, “Sure!” Instead, you take the question seriously and that gets you to realize that you need energy to build a set or paint scenery this afternoon, or rehearse a dance routine, whatever, and that you can’t afford to be bogged down with sugar and starchy carbs.

Living mindfully is to be alive to what is going on with you and the people and events around you. When you know – really see- what is happening and why, you can make whatever the situation is better, not worse. Living mindfully helps you see things realistically and helps you plan now for what will bring you closer to your goals. A person doesn’t just wake up one morning and say “I’m going to be a great set designer” and sketch out a memorable set. One wakes up one morning and says, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do today to keep myself on the path to becoming a great designer” and note a few ideas on your sketchpad. One of those notes might be to find out if you can take a drawing class next semester.

Got a job?

You may have a job this summer that has nothing to do with theatre or the performing arts. You can still do it mindfully, with your artistic goals in mind. Any job:

  • Makes you more self-sufficient
  • Gives you a chance to see how the business world works (remember that there is also the business side to any art)
  • Gives you plenty of chances to absorb human nature (how people look for the costume designer, what things they carry with them for the props person, what a work setting looks like from the perspective of a set designer, what people do and why they do it and how they act and sound doing it for the actor (any performer.)

Make good decisions

Begin to see that what you do, the decisions you make today, will expand and grow as you get older and more experienced. If you make your bed today, you are telling yourself you want to be a well-ordered person who knows where he is going and who knows how to get there. It begins with simple acts that become habits you don’t have to think about every day.

  1. Decide what areas of the performing arts interest you.

I’m going to give you an overview of the theatre called “Introduction to the Performing Arts” (I’ll give you a link to it when it’s ready), with side-trips into television and movies and dance and music when I can, to give you an idea of the kinds of things you might want to do in the performing arts. If a job interests you, you’ll be able to click the link and find out more about it.

  1. Decide on what you want to read this summer and start one of those books today. Don’t wait for the summer. Do it now, while you are motivated.
  2. Decide that you will have fun this summer but that some of this summer will be devoted to finding out more about your interests in the performing arts.

Base your choices on the areas you decided in #3 (above.)   Please, I’m talking about maybe three – you don’t want this to feel too much like school. Except: Please note, there are books colleges expect you to have read before you cross those hallowed halls, so the list I provide will have a boatload of those very must-read books.

“Motivation will almost always beat mere talent.” Norman R. Augustine

Just remember, the future is more of today, so if you are frittering away today, chances are that’s what you will do tomorrow. But what if you took a class in acrylic technique today? Probably you’ll have assignments that will keep you busy tomorrow learning how to use acrylic paints to bring your set designs alive. You’ll be getting more skill at designing, not dreaming.

More tips for the summer

  1. Read a lot of plays. (Need a hint for what to read? Check out Reading list in the menu of this blog.)
  2. Keep up with what is going on in New York and regional theatres around where you live.
  3. See plays wherever you can.
  4. See movies, watch television, only do it mindfully, not to kill time.
  5. Find new books to read and not just theatre books. You want a balanced education that deals with all aspects of human life – you are, after all, looking at the world through a developing artist’s eyes. Also, be mindful there are always reading lists you’ll have to get through if you are anticipating going to college.
  6. Discover your performing arts interests and be honest with yourself about what you like and what you’re good at. Other people are always quick to tell you what you’re good at or lousy at, but find out what you want for yourself.
  7. Find a class to take: acting, writing, drawing, singing, dancing, piano, whatever is within your major interest. Look at regional theatres or local community theatres for theatre and performing classes.
  8. If you are an actor, find and list at least 4 monologues (comedy, drama, classic, modern) that are around two minutes long that you can use for auditions. Do the same for scenes with another person you can use for class work. Learn and rehearse at least one.
  9. If you are a designer, put together a portfolio of things you could show people, such as costume sketches, set designs, lighting plot for a play your school is doing in the fall, a prompt book for a play you were stage manager for. Something like that, something you can build on. (I will try to give you more concrete information later on this summer. Stay tuned….)
  10. If you are a playwright, write a scene or a one-act and finish anything you have already started. Get it in a play format (the internet has plenty of examples.) Edit it. Get it ready to show someone. Start the next play, maybe a one-act. Same goes for comedy sketches. Finish and polish. Get them into your portfolio.
  11. Volunteer for a local production or summer theatre. If you’re an actor, try out for a part. If you are a technician or a designer, volunteer to hang and focus lights, paint the sets, sew costumes, run the light board, run props, or be part of the backstage crew.
  12. Start to think about what the next level will be for you. Is it a liberal arts education? A fine arts degree from a respected college? A conservatory where you concentrate on your art.

Remember, you have to have a concrete idea of where you are going in the performing arts to know where you need to be right now.

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Zen and the art of summer

Some things you can do this summer that will help you toward a career in the performing arts aren’t easy to pin down, nor are they anything you’re likely to go wild over. These things are quiet, small things, but they are a way of looking at ordinary things with the creative eyes of the artist. I’m calling them Zen-like because they will teach you planning and patience. These things just are. And they are things that will work for you no matter what profession you finally go into.

So if they are not all that, why would you even want to consider doing them? As Monk in the TV show of the same name used to say, “You’ll thank me later.”

1. Learn how to plan.

I want to write a play. What do I do now? I make a plan. This is my plan, not anyone else’s. Other people need to do make their own plan using their own strategy. This is going to be mine.

My strategy is to know where I’m going with this writing project and I’ll let the details guide me each day. This is my preliminary plan:

  1. To review what it takes to write a play, I’m going to reread Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting, which came highly recommended in a playwriting class I took.
  2. I’m going to take my idea and outline the scenes I think I’ll need. I can add more scenes or take some away later as I get into it.
  3. I’ll flesh out my scenes and rearrange them to give the play shape and then rewrite like crazy.
  4. I’ll estimate how long this play will take to write. I have a goal to enter it into a playwriting contest I found when I was researching.
    1. How do I know how to estimate? I go by how long it took me to develop a scene for that playwriting class and multiply it by the number of scenes in my outline and then add a few weeks for a cushion. I add another three months for rewriting. Another month for editing and rewriting the final draft.
    2. I now realize that I’ll have to enter next year’s contest because no way is this play going to be ready in time for this year’s.
    3. I set aside time – the same time every day – for the actual writing. I will adhere to this even if it means spending time sitting in front of the computer screen staring at a blank Word page. Eventually some words will appear and I’ll be off and running.

When I plan, my vision comes alive. Little by little my vision becomes real and almost a living, breathing thing that needs care and feeding.

When you plan, you put your intentions out there into the Universe where all that energy can put your project in motion and help you get it done in a satisfactory way. The Universe isn’t going to put a prizewinning play in a nice neat package on your desk for you, but things begin to work toward that. I know now I can do it, even if it is going to take at least a year to get it done. What I can’t predict or make happen is if I will win. I can only write it to the best of my ability. I can finish it.

2. Live mindfully

The second thing to do starting now is to look, really look at things. At everything you see. At whatever emotions come up. Your thoughts. See them. Feel them. Right now. It is the present that feeds your creative soul, not what you think you’ll do some day. Your future is more of you are doing today. So watch, observe with the eyes of an artist. Write these observations down, if you can. Or sketch them. You want to preserve impressions. These are the observations that fuel your art.

3. Look for things to sync up

You begin to see ideas everywhere. You begin to see that obstacles are actually opportunities. The old adage heard over and over in detective and crime shows is “There are no coincidences.” And so it becomes for you.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say your intention is to write comedy sketches and your plan is to get as much writing in as possible wherever and whenever you can. A trip to see plays in New York for two weeks threatens to derail your plans. But you remember that obstacles are also opportunities so you take your tablet with you on the plane. You have an idea you want to write about and there is no time to lose.

You get on the plane and into your seat. The plane takes off and you begin typing up a storm. You are on a roll. But an obstacle is looming. Someone sitting next to you interrupts to inquire about what you’re doing. You tell him. He asks you to read some of it.  You do. He laughs. You are surprised. He hands you a business card. Turns out he’s Tina Fey’s or Fred Armisen’s or someone like that’s agent and asks you to send him a sample of your work.

You don’t panic, because part of your plan has been to write a lot and also to take the time to format it and make the best ones look good so you’ll always have a ready-made samples. You have plenty you can send him.

A coincidence? Really?

The Universe provides what you need, but you’ve got to put it out there, “it” being your intentions and the planned follow-through these intentions deserve.

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‘Tis the Award Season

I am watching contests and awards of all kinds, and am enjoying them, but with the Academy Awards looming this week, I can’t help thinking about the implications of awards on how we view art. I’m especially concerned by the so-called contests that many high schools enter and I have to wonder what that’s doing to you theatre student in your efforts to become skilled at whatever your art form is. Yes, it is great to come in first at a state theatre competition, but what if you don’t even place? Should you hang up your makeup brush and think about being an accountant?

We have the Oscars this week. The Big Show. Some cynical friends of mine call the Academy Awards merely a popularity contest and so they are in a way. Who do you like for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Movie? Your decision will likely be based on what you enjoyed the most. I often judge like that, too. Which chef “deserved” to win on Chopped? In the dog show, which pooch was the cutest? In football, which team has the most loveable quarterback? I have even rooted for a team with the best uniform.

How – or why – would I say one work of art is “better” than another? There is no good/bad, right/wrong in art. Not according to influential people like Viola Spolin (see Improv articles in this blog.) So what is the point of awarding “best” of anything in the arts?

And yet I will watch and get into all kinds of award shows (and their accompanying Red Carpets). I certainly look forward to the next Chopped – love the competition, though for the life of me I can’t understand why because I can’t taste the dishes for myself. But I root for personalities. Who deserves it, who do I want to see go out those doors and quickly (The Best Jerk.) I try to outguess what the judges are thinking but I often get mixed messages from them, so it’s down to story line and maybe who has the best hairdo.

Same with the Super Bowl. This year I got to see two of my favorite teams duke it out (I have a bias for the Harbaugh brothers that goes back to Jim’s quarterbacking days with the Bears.) It was competitive and lots of fun to watch. I wanted the Ravens to win. Why? What do I know about football? Nothing. I think the idea of the game is to move the ball up and down the field with the aim of bringing the football across the goal line. My criteria for liking the Ravens over the 49ers is that I used to live in Baltimore and loved the city. “You have no standards!” I hear you cry. Right. I only know what I like: Baltimore.

So really. How do things get judged?

In football, except for a few officiating flaps, one team beats the other. It is clear who wins. It’s the team that got the ball over the goal line more than the other team. But is it really so clear who won? Remember that movie Any Given Sunday? One idea in that movie is that any team can win on any given Sunday because there is supposed to be parity in professional sports. Lots of effort goes in to making sure that the teams all have the same level of competency. That means that your dad’s neighborhood pickup game will not be competing on Sunday afternoons with the Baltimore Ravens. What fun would that be? So given parity, what does a Super Bowl win really mean? Maybe it is just something to sandwich between an overblown half time show and competitive commercials? (What was this year’s Best Commercial? they ask. The madness goes on and on.)

I watch dog shows and the competition is fierce. Again, I can’t actually put my hands on those dogs, any more than I can taste the chefs’ dishes, but I know what I like and if I don’t have a favorite right away, I can always pick up clues from the announcers as to which dog is expected to win. I was all for Banana Joe, right from the beginning. Why? Is it because he was clearly and unequivocally the best dog at Westminster? How would I know? I don’t even have a dog. I just know I liked him, his winning attitude, his confidence that his squished-in face was adorable not ugly. He worked it. He had presence, that certain something most actors have in abundance that makes us want to watch them. What I’m talking about here goes way beyond technique and skill.

The best thing about a dog show brings up what I think is wrong with art competitions,

especially those at the high school level where winning often becomes the real reason for high school art programs: a way of bring glory and prominence to the school. The dog show is set up to do it right. The Best in Show judges not dog against dog, but (this is important) the dog against the standards of the breed. So when a dog wins a class, it isn’t because the judge just happens to like that dog, it is because the dog demonstrates the best example of the standards of the breed. In a high school arts competition, what are the standards? Comedy against the standards of comedy, acting against the standards of acting, or does it come down to who had the best coach, the most money for production values, the best knowledge of what usually wins these things? What does that have to do with you?

But what happens if two dogs exhibit winning standards? Now we are in the realm of the “intangibles” as football people call it. I mentioned Banana Joe’s attitude, an ability to make his personality shine when it counted the most. Which dog then gets chosen? The one with the “intangible.” The one who “worked it.” The runway dog. The dog with confidence. The dog who has that “something.” Same with the artist.

So what does this all have to do with the Oscars? Stay tuned for the next post, “The Oscars: Silver Lining for the movie artist?”

 

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Six plays to see in New York

Sara is going to New York in late December (2012) and is compiling a list of plays to see while she is there and wanted my opinion. (See Four Shows and a Wedding for how she wrangles tickets for so many plays.)

I made a short list. I eliminated musicals which usually speak for themselves and need no annotation from me, and I eliminated anything too far out. The list and descriptions are from www.broadway.com/ and the annotations in italics are mine.

1. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — Off-Broadway

Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce star in Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Christopher Durang’s Chevhov-centric new play.

This to me is a flat out MUST SEE. Christopher Durang is my all-time favorite. If you find you like his humor, have I got a monologue for you: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.

Sigourney Weaver – I’ve  mentioned her before – is someone whose work you need to study. She is sublime in so many kinds of roles.

Thing is, you may need to be familiar with Chekov’s plays to fully get this. But even if you don’t know Chekov, Durang’s comedy is always delicious madness!

2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — Broadway

Steppenwolf’s production of Edward Albee’s classic arrives on Broadway starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton.

Another MUST SEE. A play you need to know with performances by two notable people. Tracy Letts is a playwright as well as an actor and wrote August: Osage County which featured Amy Morton, who was so wonderful. I can absolutely see her as Martha.

3. If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet — Off-Broadway

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Nick Payne’s comic drama.

Excellent review from The New Yorker. New-ish play that sounds interesting. Read The New Yorker synopsis

4. The Heiress — Broadway

Jessica Chastain, David Straithairn and Dan Stevens star in the Broadway revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s drama.

The review I read wasn’t good, specifically Jessica Chastain, but I would see this because Chastain is a good actor and will be even better because of this misstep. I also like Straithairn. Another reason to see it is because you need to know this play.

5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — Broadway

Scarlett Johansson and Benjamin Walker star in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic.

This hasn’t opened yet, but it is a play you need to know and it wouldn’t hurt to see Scarlett Johansson in this role that Elizabeth Taylor all but defined in the movie version. Debra Monk is in it and is always a welcome addition to any cast. Benjamin Walker (hey! he’s married to Meryl Streep’s daughter) is already a good actor (he graduated from Julliard and so did Jessica Chastain.) It previews beginning Tuesday, December 18 and opens Thursday, January 17, 2013.
6. Picnic — Broadway

Roundabout Theatre Company presents the Broadway revival of William Inge’s comedy.

Don’t know a thing about this production, except that it features Maggie Grace, Sebastian Stan, and Ellen Burstyn (who’s work you need to know). Picnic is a play you need to know. Just see it if you can.

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How to develop artistic taste

How do you know what you like and don’t like? Many of us haven’t a clue, but in the arts one of the essential skills you need is to be able to know what you like and more important, why you like it. You need to develop taste, a point of view for your art. To know you like one play better than another and why. Why one performance works for you and another doesn’t. Easy for me to say, right?

Here are some thoughts about how you can begin today to develop a sense of what you like, to develop a critical eye. Warning: What you like may turn out to be different from that of your friends, family, or what is sure to be the next Big Thing.

1. Read history (about the performing arts) and see what worked in the past and why.

It will help develop critical taste about what you see now. For instance, I Love Lucy was the best at a weekly comedy show. Yes, we laughed at loud at the insanity that was Lucille Ball and her supporting cast and her writers.

What makes me laugh at loud today? 30 Rock. Tina Fey surely has Lucy genes and Alec Baldwin is constantly inventive and much funnier than Desi. 30 Rock  is about modern concerns and oddities that are every bit as inane as Lucy going to work at a candy factory and screwing up the assembly line. In both, the comedy is off-beat, the characters are wacky. And both make me laugh.

So does it matter whether you like 30 Rock? Does it matter whether I’m ‘right’ about it? The point is, I developed a certain sensibility about TV comedy sit coms that I have just used to rank I Love Lucy and 30 Rock. It means I developed taste about it. It means that I used critical judgment to decide what I like. And it means I used reasons to identify what makes me laugh. Bottom line: I either laugh or don’t laugh, but when I do laugh and take the time to figure it out, I can tell you why. Doesn’t mean I think you should like 30 Rock, too. You have your own taste about comedy.

2See lots of things: movies, art galleries, television (even commercials), concerts, plays, musicals, ballet and other dance, Shakespeare, etc. (You get the idea.)

We already mentioned about history. Maybe you’ll see a movie featuring Lawrence Olivier playing Hamlet and think it so old-fashioned. But to appreciate a modern version of Hamlet, such as Ethan Hawke’s 2000 version of Hamlet, you need to have some frame of reference. Comparing the two, you could even come up with how acting styles have evolved and to see Ethan Hawke playing a modern Hamlet would help you understand what he is doing in his contemporary roles.

3Read criticism, not just those reviews which tell you what to see or not to see; what you should like and not like.

See a movie or a TV show and form an opinion with reasons for them. What it made it work or not work for you? After that, read a review of it by established, respected, and knowledgeable writers (critics, not reviewers.) The New York Times is always a good, reliable source for criticism. Other good and unusual sources are The Slotkin Letter, website with criticism and discussion about Canada, London, and New York theatre, The New Yorker drama criticism, and Lyn Gardner’s blog for UK’s The Guardian. You will no doubt find many other sources.

You don’t have to agree with the writer. You need to find your own reason for why you liked/didn’t like it. It can’t be something like this: “Well, Dude, I mean, like it rocked!” What does “rock” mean in this context? How does that meaning explain what you saw?

4. Learn how to do the thing yourself.

Do a few comedy roles. You’ll get the hang of what is funny to you. Do a few tragedy roles. You’ll get the idea what makes a tragic figure, what plays well on stage and what doesn’t. You don’t have to do it right/wrong. You just have to see what works and what doesn’t.

There’s no right or wrong in this kind of criticism; it rests only on what you saw and how you reacted to it and why. Nothing to do with good or bad. Nothing to do with whether you’d recommend it or not. When you develop taste, a critical sense, you also begin to see that you can let other people make up their own minds about it. You can have and keep your own ideas, confident that you have discovered your sense of taste.

Simple everyday exercise

You probably already have a sense of taste, but you’ll find that you need to be constantly refining it. You’ll find your own method of developing taste, but here is one way to start.

Which do you like better?

Do this with TV shows, or looking at pictures, or at clothes, or at anything where you can make compare like things.

  1. Look at houses in the neighborhood, or go to an art gallery and look at pictures, or any place where there are things to compare.
  2. Stop at the first one and take it in.
  3. Go to the second one and take it in.
  4. Decide if you like 1 better or 2.
  5. One sentence to explain your choice.
  6. Move on to number 3. Decide if you like 3 better than the one you chose between 1 and 2.
  7. Why your choice? Was there anything really “wrong” with the one you didn’t choose?
  8. Keep doing this until you get the hang of it and are no longer self-conscious about your choices.

Summary

In developing taste, we’re talking about the performing arts, not cupcakes. But then, how do you know what cupcakes /foods you like? How did you develop that kind of taste? It’s probably the same kind of thing to learn aesthetic, artistic taste. You learn from experience, from what those around you think about it, some of it is just “I know what I like when I see it.” What you need to do as an artist is to refine that taste.

To learn to know what you like in the theatre:

  1. Study the history of it.
  2. Find other examples of it.
  3. Sample a lot of different kinds of plays and productions. (Read plays.)
  4. Learn to do it yourself. Learn the craft.
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