Songs for the Struggling Artist


What I Wish American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits #12 – R and D

My English theatre making friends apply for (and receive) funding for R & D. R & D is short for Research and Development and is commonly thought of in this country as a scientific or corporate exploration of ideas. We innovate in business in this country but not in the arts. You can not get a grant for R & D in theatre here. If you have an idea, you have to be sure it is a good one. You do not get funding to TRY something out. Everything you do should be a winner. This is madness, of course, especially in a creative field. Every idea is not a winner. And without opportunities to try things out, we can not innovate artistically.

You know that super successful, multimillion dollar show touring all over the world, War Horse? It began its life as a small R & D exploration in the National Theatre Studios. Granted it was R & D within the National Theatre and in collaboration with one of the most well respected puppet companies in the world. The odds were good that it was going to work out. But even so – when they began, they didn’t set out to make what we know now as War Horse – they set out to EXPLORE the possibilities of a show that might become War Horse and they took almost a year of solid work to do it. I think that’s why it was so successful. But that sort of thing doesn’t just happen at the National Theatre level. On the Fringe, small theatre companies explore ideas with their own R & D funding. I think this is why British Theatre is dominating the American landscape.

The culture of R & D encourages innovation. It allows for the possibility of failure but also of new ideas. Big businesses know this. Google knows it. 3M knows it. There is all kinds of evidence that innovation comes from having the time and the space to play. We need funding models that allow us to do R & D – to play, to discover, to try things out, to allow us to discover what the show really IS before we have to do the marketing.

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Why my Tech is Like my Life in the Arts
March 13, 2016, 11:41 pm
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I finally caved and got myself a smart phone. I’d been happy with my texting and phone capable phones for years and would have remained so if I’d been able to find such a phone when I had to quickly replace it. This new phone does a lot of cool stuff that my old one couldn’t do. It can find me on a map. It can tell me when the bus is coming. But it’s a little buggy. I had to do a back up and restore. The advantage of this new phone, I’d been told, was that it would back up everything to Google – so even if I lost my phone, it would all be there. And despite having lost oceans of data before, I trusted that this was happening. I clicked back-up and restore and re-started my phone.

Then, I went to call one of my best friends and found that her phone number had vanished from my phone, along with my mother’s. Apps I’d deleted had returned and the most important things had disappeared. If I’d had my wits about me, I’d have been more suspicious of this backup/restore myth. I’d have copied out all the contacts that were really important and put them in a safe place. But I did not do that – not this time – nor did I do it the previous time when I’d lost my phone and had to find so many phone numbers. I continue to place my trust in this device that has continued to be unreliable.

And not just this device either. When my computer got a spill on it, the guys at the the shop erased all my data to give it a good hard start and fix it. I wasn’t worried, because I’d been backing up my data automatically with Time Machine. I was pretty pleased with myself for actually keeping that on track. So I hadn’t manually backed up anything in a year or two.

Turns out this re-install of the operating system they did at the shop meant that I couldn’t access many of my Time Machine files. I lost contacts and calendars, photos – all sorts of things. And so it was that I lost all the reminders of my friends’ birthdays and so I missed one I hadn’t missed in the twenty years I’d known my friend.

And what do I do I to solve these failures of technology? Do I get a paper calendar again – get print outs of everything? Do I get an old school address book? Not yet. I keep trying to get technology to help me with my technology problem.

How is this like a life in the arts?

Well – my life in the arts is equally unreliable and equally un-give-up-able. The only solution for art problems is more art. You know it is likely to fail and that failure may cost you connections with loved ones. You know you really should have a back-up life – some more traditional paper version of your life – but no matter how much you mean to back up your life, you just never seem to find the time.  And you can’t pretend to be surprised when it fails – like your phone, failure is built into the system. And like your phone, you stick with it anyway. Maybe some of you are better about backing up tech and maybe, probably, you’re also better at backing up your lives. Me? Not yet. But I will keep trying.

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In Praise of Not Knowing

This whole Shakespeare controversy may be silly but it’s gotten me thinking a lot. My initial post on the “translations” looked at the news through my experience as a Shakespeare educator. My second one didn’t really have to do with Shakespeare so much as the power of money in the arts in America. All of which has led me here.

The more I think about it, the more this project seems to be about a discomfort with not understanding, with not knowing every word of Shakespeare. It is a discomfort with ambiguity and mystery. While this particular project might stem from one businessman’s need to understand everything, I think people around the world are struggling with a similar need to have all questions answered.

We live in a world now wherein most of the answers to our questions are a moment away. As comedian Pete Holmes has said, having the internet at our fingertips means that “the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” (Watch this whole bit if you can. It pretty much sums up this entire blog post.)

Why do camels spit?  Where did Yoko Ono go to college? What answers are people searching for? I can know as fast as I can type (or speak to Siri/Google.) We don’t need to wonder, to try and resolve it on our own, we just look – and we know. Which is magnificent. I love knowing things.

However – there are fewer and fewer opportunities to really sit inside not knowing. Most film and TV is pretty straightforward. So is contemporary theatre generally. You don’t leave Mamma Mia or The Gin Game with a lot of questions. And even if the work is a little more abstract, like The Bald Soprano, you will likely still understand every word of a play performed in your native tongue. Shakespeare’s language requires a kind of surrender to not understanding everything. It is a chance to exercise the quiet muscle of taking words in without boxing them up in relentless meaning. It’s also an opportunity to not know, then find some answers and then discover how much there still is to discover.

This, I think, is one of the functions of art in general. To help us accept and appreciate what we can’t understand. Because as much as it feels like we now know everything (as long as we have access to the internet,) we cannot possibly grasp all the mysteries. I may feel I know my best friends but there are depths, dark corners and bright lights in them that I will never see, never know. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest that no matter how well you know someone, there is still an ocean of things about them outside of your knowledge. You can’t Google a soul.

In years previous, you might have gone to a certain kind of college to get access to knowing things. A professor had the information and then relayed it to you. This style of learning runs counter to a style of learning wherein the information isn’t the goal. It is, rather, the skill of learning, of engaging, of building a self or developing a soul. In other words, grappling with the mysteries. Arts and humanities are the technology for this. And making peace with ambiguity is one of the tools. A concerto doesn’t mean something. A dance isn’t necessarily “trying to say” anything. A painting doesn’t have to represent something. Sometimes that’s hard for people.

Sometimes it’s hard for me, I’m not going to lie. I am a meaning maker. I try to make meaning out of just about anything. But stretching my ability to sit in not knowing what something means is very good for me.

And of course, Shakespeare is made of words and those words do mean things. But some of those words can have two or three or sometimes even four meanings. How can we make peace with a quadruple entendre if we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity?

We’re at this funny moment culturally. On one hand, we are understanding more and more, only seconds away from knowing things we didn’t know before – and on the other hand understanding less – about what we’re supposed to do with all this knowledge. And all the institutions that would help us deal with that question are under threat. The Education Minister of Japan wants to cut all humanities programs in higher education there. Arts programs are on the chopping block all over the world. The Arts Council of England has been painfully defunded by the current government. Here, in America, we’re giving our playwrights words to translate instead of asking them to help us reconcile the mysteries of the current moment.

Not knowing things is very important. But I want to be clear that I’m not asking for ignorance. There are things to know, yes, lots of things, and there are things to Not Know. Real education teaches how to know the difference and make peace with the unknowable. Exceptional art helps us sit in the mystery.

Belinda He, choreographer, in the mystery

You can help me Not Know by becoming my patron on Patreon.

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Click HERE  to Check out my Patreon Page




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