October 23, 2015

The lessons of the cemetery

Downtown Bloomsburg from the point of view
of those who lived and worked here.
I first learned the term "experiential learning" as a piece of jargon or buzzword. It was eduspeak. For a time, perhaps still, it was a way of communicating to funders and others about the value of what we did as theatre educators. The term was valuable to them as a way of understanding not what we were teaching, but the way we were teaching. Our teaching methods were not as recognizable as rote memorization, the drilling of on-paper exercises, or reading the test-approved texts. 

I don't know what the official definition is now, if there is one, but I have learned more about my own definition. My approach to teaching college students includes a focus on experiential learning. For me it's about getting out of the classroom and about doing stuff when we are in the classroom.

This week I took my Bloomsburg University playwriting class to the Rosemont Cemetery. (It wasn't the first time I took students to a cemetery. I also took one of my acting classes a couple of years ago, but for different reasons. They were performing pieces from Spoon River Anthology, a series of poem-monologues spoken by the residents of a cemetery. Published in 1915, many of the permanent residents of the Espy, PA cemetery lived and died around the same time as these characters.) This week's lesson theme is "How can a playwright find inspiration in current events, history and research?" Our artist research sometimes include traditional academic methods of delving into books and other scholarly sources, but the research is also going to places in reality and in one's imagination to mine inspiration. 

The culminating project for student playwrights is writing a 10-minute play inspired by Bloomsburg town history. In class we looked at the fantastic resources of our own Andruss Library Archives and the Columbia County Historical and Genealogical Society archives. We traveled to the cemetery to find more immediate and visceral inspiration: the people of Bloomsburg. 

Playwrights conclude their research session
and return to life-in-progress.
The names on the stones are fantastic. Inspiration in themselves. Catharine Kressler, Philip Unangst, Margaret Metz. The fact that the Sheep and Peacock families are buried so close to one another.  The numerology of the life and death of Augustus Mason: b. Feb. 17, 1817, d. Feb. 17, 1879.  The students saw the names of the buildings on the university campus –  McCormick, Waller, Hartline. And we were all impacted by the many stones that read "Infant child" or a name with only one year indicating that the child did not make it past one year old. 

I encouraged the playwrights to take in the names, but also the entire atmosphere of the cemetery and it's relationship to the town around it. I asked them to ask questions, to become curious and investigative. What else would they want to know about these people? This cemetery? This town? It didn't take much encouragement to set them to exploring the cemetery. They had inspiration all around them.

I am looking forward to hearing the first reading of their plays. 

September 30, 2015

To be authentic

"So much has been written about how far Trane stretched the improvisatory dimensions of jazz that I would prefer to focus on the extraordinary spirit that powered all that searching. Whenever we talked during his last years, Trane would always bring the conversation to the unyielding need he felt to keep going as deeply as he could into his feelings, his very soul. He often used the word "cleansing," for what he sought was an order of inner peace that transcended passing worries and vexations. But he knew there was no easy way to get there - one had to continually scour oneself, confront oneself, and in the process try to connect with the unity at the source of all life. It was this concept of going through stages of self-knowledge which accounted in part for his interest in Eastern religion and philosophy. And it was the fulfilling of this concept in his music that accounted for its seizing, spiraling intensity and also for its passages of uncommon calm and grace.

For all the unsparing passion and necessary tension in his music. Coltrane in the last years was an exceptionally gentle, patient man to talk to. There was also in him a huge generosity of spirit. Many young musicians have witnessed to the encouragement he gave them, the time he would take with them. And although I expect he was dissatisfied with whatever stage he had reached-always needing to look deeper and higher - I can say that he was one of the exceedingly few men I've known who did not feel in competition with anyone, who bore no malice to anyone, and who lived the conviction that man is perfectible, that man has only just begun to realize his capacities to open up himself and the world through satyagraha - truth force."

- Nat Hentoff, excerpt from liner notes to The Best of JohnColtrane

I was blown away by Nat Hentoff's liner notes. I read them. I looked up. I said "Wow..." several times. Out loud. By myself. 

Heaven and Earth by Anselm Kiefer
It's an album from 1970. It's a CD I've had for more than 20 years. But I read the liner notes this week, maybe for the first time. I discovered them in the process of (finally) getting rid of my many, many CD jewel cases. (I am far too sentimental about these things. It's difficult for me to let go of something that once had so much meaning to me, even if it's a seemingly unnecessary artifact in our digital world.)

I don't know John Coltrane's music very well. But I do love it. I know that I love this album. I know that I connect to his music. I hear the artist in this music. I love that there are no words, but there is a story being told. With every note. With every absence of a note.

I wonder, does any great artist set out to be an influence? I doubt it. S/he sets out to make music. Or perhaps, more to the point, s/he sets out to do what s/he was driven to do, what s/he had to do.

Many of the artists I admire most have a common quality. The common quality is not on the surface of their work. They don't seem to be the same "type" of artist. But when I learn more about the artist's path, I discover that they are all making art their own way. Their path is personal and unorthodox.
Visual artists including Anselm Kiefer, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse. Theatre artists such as Robert Wilson, Julie Taymor, Mark Rylance. I am in awe of their artistic voice. It's authentic. In music, The Smiths, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Built to Spill. The voices of these artists. I don't hear them trying to sound like or look like anything or anyone.

How can we strive to be our authentic artistic selves? To be bold. To be confident. To be authentic. That's the goal.

September 18, 2015

Directing skills are life skills

There so many times during my teaching that I think and often say out loud to my students, these are not just theatre skills – these are not only directing, acting, playwriting skills – these are life skills. 

Some of the skills that I teach are simple rules that apply to the course and to life: Don't ask your professor for stapler; Don't explain that you were confused by the guidelines when in reality you didn't read the guidelines (or you didn't read the guidelines closely enough); Don't use comic sans. But the bigger lessons are the ones that I find more fascinating. For example, how are directing skills life skills? I am interested in this question perhaps because I continue to learn the lesson myself. I know that my "director's toolkit" is available to me in my day-to-day life. I may not use it as often as I would like, but it is always available to me.

An visual and textual
approach to Neighborhood 3,
a directorial unifying tool.
A successful director unifies the group. They do so by balancing a strong vision with incredibly active listening. They honor the creative ideas around them and ultimately serve the project more than themselves. They are, in short, effective leaders. An effective leader/director asks lots of questions. The most important question is, "why?" This is a question asked of oneself as well as one's fellow artists. We make a choice on stage – an acting choice, a design choice, a blocking choice. How is that choice serving the intent of the playwright and the specific approach we are taking in this production? How does this integrate with the other choices that we are making? Are we excited about the choice or are we excited about the fact that got choice is right for this play and this production? An effective director must be a conscientious choice maker and lead others to be conscientious as well.

An effective director must integrate their heart into the work. Theatre practitioners are, after all, human. Directors are humans, leading other humans. As J. Donald Walters reminds us in The Art of Leadership, "Genuine leadership is of only one type: supportive. It leads people: It doesn't drive them. It involves them: It doesn't coerce them. It never loses sight of the most important principle governing any project involving human beings: namely, that people are more important than things."

We must be reminded that our stumblings as leaders are allowed and expected. We too are human. We too are concerned that we do well. But as a good director, and by extension, a good human, we concern ourselves with the fears and insecurities before our own.  "Assume that everyone is in a permanent state of catatonic terror." says Frank Hauser in Notes on Directing. This will help you approach the impossible state of infinite patience and benevolence that actors and others expect from you."  It's good to think of the other point of view. That's a directing skill. That's a life skill.

July 12, 2015

What A Day

I love this song. There's something about it that's just so pure. It expresses something, expresses a moment, expresses an experience for Greg Laswell. He sings his heart. And I love how this video expresses the lyrics of the song. It's literal. It's the words. But it's not narrative literal; it's not showing us the story of the words. It's showing us the words themselves, expressed in a specific and personal visual form that makes us understand them more deeply, or at least differently.

July 9, 2015

Very big things, very small things

I found a stone on the beach in Rhode Island. It's flat and round. It's round-ish. It has a band of one color stone running across the middle. That band is yellow-ish, or maybe I would call it "honey" colored especially because it looks like a band of petrified honey and that's what makes it great--when I look at it I am filled with wonder, considering how and when it was formed. The rest of the stone, the "top" and the "bottom" bands are slate grey. The kind of color that one might identify as a "stone-like" color of grey.

I started looking for other stones that were like it. Round, flat stones that had a solid band of another type of stone in the middle. I found a few.

Soon after I found them, I wanted to paint. I wanted to take paint to canvas explore how the shapes and colors met one another in these stones, these round stones with bands of other stones running through them as if they had been pressed together, the layers one on top of another. A few days later I saw an article about Jupiter. There was a picture of the planet in the article. It looked like my stones. Or, perhaps, my stones looked like Jupiter. Similar colors, similar roundness, similar wide band of color intersecting the roundness. I loved this connection, this not-so-accidental similarity.

I like how the very big things are often a lot like the very small things. And the other way around.

It's no surprise, I suppose, that the characters in my plays are fascinated by the same thing. For example, Alice, who works with maps, shares this story with her co-worker in Restoration/Conservation:

When I was little, I don't remember how old, father told me, “Alice, the world is your oyster.” The world is your oyster. He was so sincere. So earnest. I thought it must be something profound that he was telling me. But I didn't understand what it meant. So I pictured the world in an oyster. Little. And then I imagined how little we must be if the world was actually size of an oyster. After that, whenever I would see maps I would try to fit them, in my imagination, to the size of a little oyster. And then my imagination made it even smaller one later I learned that pearls came from oysters and so I pictured the world size of the pearl. It must've been around the same time that I learned that the world was round or at least understood it—maybe I had learned it before, but I understood that the world was round. I saw globes and some maps splattered across these globes. Painted on these globes. On these pearls. (A small moment) The delicate nature of these pages, of these maps. Their small size yet significant impact on their peers and on history.

To read the play, head this way