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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The nature of "improvising/making/creating"

This post on The Improvised Life really puts into words what it feels like when we're two weeks away from opening a show: on-things-not-looking-good-while-youre-working-on-them.

There is always a point in our process where I look around and think, there's no way this is coming together. This is a mess. It isn't going to work. We've failed. This time we can't pull it off.

And every time it does come together by opening night. It's kind of miraculous, really. And at the same time, I'm sure it's something every artist experiences.

By the way, have you read the Improvised Life manifesto? I love this:
You don't need to be an expert to improvise.
Improvising is a practice, like yoga or cooking; the more we do it, the better we get at it.
Creativity can be cultivated. We can learn what we don't know.
We can be afraid to do something, and do it anyway.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Marketing the Question Mark - aka Don't Ask Me to Explain

So ... is it a good thing to make a show that is a mystery, even to you?  There is always an element of the unknown in a show made from scratch, a requirement for a certain kind of faith in the long collective process, a knowledge that the whole point of collaborative creation is to discover something that could never come from a single rational mind. Right? I get that. At the same time, shouldn't the artist be able to competently pronounce some insight into what a show is, how it works, why it exists?  I ask this because as we approach the opening of the first work-in-progress run of Uncanny Valley--whoa is that really tomorrow?!--it's not necessarily that I find myself at a loss when asked to explain the experience of the show, it's that I don't want to do it.  When confronted with "what's it about?" my first impulse is, "it's about not answering that question; in fact, if I do answer that question, the show will be weaker for it. Just come and see it".  Obnoxious, right?  

The marketer in me berates the obnoxious artist "how the hell are you going to convince anyone to see your show if you are obstinately refusing to define or even accurately describe it?"  True, I suppose you've got a point, me. But I respond "we've made a show built around the idea of building an idea in front of the audience. Whatever I explain to you will be a fence-walking attempt to get you interested enough to see the show while trying to give away as little as possible as to what the show is actually about." (Faith Helma was put on the spot Tuesday to do precisely some of that fence-walking during a chat with Stumptown Magazine).  This is further complicated with Uncanny Valley because of our intentional conflation of the fictional show-world and reality (getting curious?).  How accurate are we to be with you, our wonderful audience, about what the show is?  Do you want the description that brings you closer to actual reality or closer to the fictional reality? And will you feel misled once you find that what you thought was the actual reality is really just more of the fiction ... and then you find out that the fiction was real all along, just steeping in metaphor... or is it steeping in your own mind ... (note: I'm just trying to confuse you)

Okay I'll stop pontificating.  My point is not actually the specifics of the show, but more of the complexity of marketing and growing an audience for this kind of contemporary performance.  This seems to be a recurring question posed to Hand2Mouth, particularly with work-in-progress runs, where part of the point of performing in front of an audience is actually to figure out what it is we are making.  How do we market this?  What do you put in the press release? How do we build an audience for a production that is necessarily a kind of question mark? (if you have any ideas, you should make sure you're at one of our post-show discussions this weekend--Sat eve or Sunday matinee).

Now for the point of all this--I just got to attend a great conversation between Chris Coleman and Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center in D.C., on the challenges of maintaining and growing non-profit arts organizations. One of Kaiser's big points was the essential (and oft overlooked) art of institutional marketing for arts organizations--this is essentially marketing that supports positive public consciousness of the company as a whole (as opposed to programmatic marketing which is about selling specific events). It struck me as very applicable to H2M's problem. What we are asking from potential audience is the commitment to the idea of the company as a whole, to participate in a culture of continuing support for our mission, without necessary parsing individual events. It is about the excitement of new work and the chance at being part of the process, not just a witness to the product. I'm not saying we must always ignore the specifics of our work, but I feel a lot better about sharing with you that what we're doing on the Reed College Mainstage starting tomorrow night is collaborating on something completely new, something experimental, collaborating with you. Will it work? Only if you come and play your part.  

See you there!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

How to make good work

I just came across two pieces of writing (by Jonathan Lethem and Anne Lamott respectively -- hat tap to Parabasis for bringing them to my attention) that put into words what I happen to think are the two elements key to making strong work. Namely:

1. Rip people off. With no shame.
2. Write shitty first drafts.

If I was going to boil down my approach to making work, those would be the two essential steps. Blatantly copy the work of artists you admire (you might as well do it blatantly since you will be doing it regardless) and put something -- anything -- out there, so you have a thing to work with, not the angst of your fretful second-guessing mind.

I love this paragraph from Anne Lamott's book:

The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it rompall over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape itlater. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go -- but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

So true.