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.