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Reflections On Many Recent Arts Experiences

I know that my season is starting to wind down when I actually have time to get out and see other people’s performances. We who work in the arts are frequently told that if we want to stay at the peak of our powers, we should always being seeing things. When you are in the middle of your season, you tend to think that you see lots of performances because you are watching a lot of different things.

The problem is, the frame of mind you are in when you watch your own show isn’t the same as when you watch someone else’s. You are thinking about arrangements that still need to be made. You are noticing things the ushers should be doing better and trying to commit that list to memory so you can attend to it during a break. You are generally less free and open to the experience. Some times you just need to go somewhere else and have the experience free of this baggage so you can progress in your own skills and abilities.

Two Fridays ago I went to see a show that contained two pieces from a work being developed to premiere on our stage this coming October. It was a nice time and I chatted with some potential donors. Granted, it wasn’t entirely free of associations with work, but not paying for any part of the production or reception certainly frees the mind of some concerns. A sentiment that one of my colleagues from another arts organization also expressed to me.

This past Friday I went to the First Friday art walk to watch excerpts for the Celebrity Project show that is opening this coming weekend. We were trying to drum up interest in the show but also gauge what did and didn’t work. I sidling up to eavesdrop on people talking about the pieces. Pretty much all our spies overheard comments on the same issues and a revamp is in the works on a couple sections.

Saturday I went to see a Fijian group that had been brought in by the East-West Center arts program as part of the celebration of their 50th Anniversary. Before the show we were told that what we were about to see was the real deal and not something that had been altered to be more palatable for tourists.

This became apparent when the group finished their first song and then went up stage and sat down in a semi-circular huddle and continued to sing–backs turned to the audience–for another five minutes. The audience seemed mostly bemused to be ignored by the performers for that period.

During this, I had a quick cascade of thoughts:

-Hmm, maybe something like this would constitute a new approach to performances.

-No, wait, this is the opposite of the current thinking. Not only is it framed in the proscenium, it moves away from interactivity and getting the audience more invested in the performance. In fact, it is actually more alienating.

-Hey, isn’t that sort of synchronous? They are performing on platforms being built for a show by the father of alienation, Berthold Brecht. Hmm, now that I think about it, someone has probably already staged a show that makes no concessions to the needs of the audience at all, ignoring and alienating them.

-Actually, this sort of activity is probably very interactive and communal in Fiji which is why they are gathered together in a circle.  Since it isn’t designed to appease tourists, we are probably just in the wrong setting to experience it in the correct manner.

Anyway, after about five minutes the men got up and started dancing and the show went on from there. Different groups would get up to dance while those that finished moved back to the circle.

The singing never stopped continuing through the transitions between dancing groups. There would be a momentary pause as they shifted between songs. But the pauses were so brief that when combined with the split second tableaux the dancers would freeze into, the audience was generally uncertain when to clap.

I began to understand why attendees of classical music get so irked by applause at the wrong times. Breaks between movements are about 20 times longer than the minuscule pauses the Fijians took to pose and continue the same dance. Yet someone had to leap in and start clapping. By the third time I was muttering under my breath for people to wait a couple more beats by which time it would be clear if it was the end of the piece or just a designated pose point.

I have to give the Fijians a lot of props for their stamina and breath control. They sang continuously for 90 minutes without amplification. The only time a person didn’t sing was when they were dancing energetically around the stage. But then they sat back down and started singing again never appearing winded by their recent exertion.

The final interesting artistic encounter came today. The lobby of my building has a gorgeous 104′ x 23′ fresco mural by Jean Charlot. It is one of the last pieces he did before he died. Today his son came by to show the piece a muralist from Barcelona. I am very proud of the mural and I want to know everything I can about it so I brought my lunch to the lobby to see if I could learn anything new from Charlot’s son. There were some new revelations. Included were some fairly obvious motifs staring me right in the face I hadn’t recognized.

What I really appreciated was how passionately and eloquently the muralist from Barcelona spoke (either that or the translator was good at embellishing). He spoke of murals being the most primitive form of art dating back to cave walls. He talked about murals being the precursor of movies. He spoke of how in days when literacy was less widespread, murals told stories with sequences of images. However, unlike movies in which the sequence of event is set down by someone else, with a mural you can create your own story by choosing which image you will view next.

It occurred to me later that this activity is already in practice with people creating mash ups of other people’s work. As processing speeds increase in our various electronic devices, perhaps it will become even more prevalent. The problem today is that the person who created the original can become angry if people re-mix their work and share it with others. With a mural, the experience is much more personal within your own head or limited to whatever group you can gather around you to listen as you point out how you have re-imagined the sequence of events.

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The Space Is The Thing

So if you have been following my infrequent postings about the site specific work we are developing, The Celebrity Project, you know that I have reveled in the role of telling people to think big rather than to limit their vision and mused on the wisdom of having a set performance space rather than moving audiences around.

Now we are 10 day out from the performance and plans really need to bow to practicality over idealism. One of the biggest changes since last I posted on the subject in January is that we have really consolidated our performance spaces. Because we are getting rain more frequently now than we did even a month ago, we have moved performances to a more sheltered central area. Most of the show is still outside, but out of necessity, the audiences won’t move between performances spaces because there is less room to maneuver around.

We are still going to split the audience between different stages, but instead of the audience moving to a new stage, the actors will flip between them. There will be some activities they will witness in common in the area between them and a final piece in the theatre. It will certainly be great fun, but the change had us scrambling a little in the administration office.

Our original concept was to have the program book be a large fold out “map to the stars” that people would use to get from stage to stage (though mostly cued by ushers and performance guides). Now that people aren’t moving from stage to stage, the design has to be changed a little.

The other problem is that our press release played up on the star map concept promising people that they would get one but warning that there would be guards present to make sure they didn’t wander off in search of a star’s possessions to sell on Ebay. It was all sort of fun and tongue in cheek. Unfortunately, the release went out before anyone told me that part of the show had been scrapped. I made a slight retraction when I sent out a little update note letting people know they could attend the show without concern about the rain.

Because the action is now in a more confined space, albeit still outdoors, I had to ponder some of the same concerns about traffic flow and crowd control. In our tech meeting today, I asked that alterations be made in the staging of one piece to draw people away from a potential choke point rather than congregating there. I also asked that the cast members guiding people in pivoting to another performance area not wear masks. They can be a little disconcerting and we want to avoid people pausing as they approached the cast member while those behind moved forward to see what was happening.

Now that things are becoming finalized the assistant theatre manager and I will start attending some dress rehearsals to figure out our front of house procedures and evaluate any other problem areas. I will have to remember to get some pictures to post here before it is over.

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Ah, Proscenium!

I am beginning to understand why performance spaces were constructed in the first place. I have done some talking in the past about how performances may need to be uncoupled from the traditional performance spaces to have significance to audiences whose entertainment experiences continue to evolve. But now that I am actually trying to do that…. Well, I begin to see the wisdom of having a controllable environment.

I think the problem is that we are trying to offer people a traditional experience in a non-traditional space. I have moved performance operations to remote locations and run outdoor music festivals so I am familiar with the logistics of having performances in places that were not designed to accommodate them. Some of that will help me make arrangements for our site specific production, the Celebrity Project. In the long run though I think committing to taking art out of the traditional spaces is going to require a concomitant effort to change expectations about where and how arts can be experienced. (And yes, it certainly can be argued we are trailing so far behind in that respect, we may not be in the position to shape and define these expectations.)

But in some ways, I think we are hobbling ourselves by cleaving to old practices. Our concerns revolve around getting enough lighting equipment to different outdoor locations. People will move between different locations, but will stay there for a long enough time that they may want to sit so we will have chairs set up. But the chairs need to be set up in a way that has good sight lines but doesn’t congest the movement of people between different areas.

I am starting to think that next time maybe the site specific show needs to make more use of the site specific features like natural light. The Greeks might have been big on outdoor theatre, but they knew the natural features were of great importance. But with a show dealing with celebrity, moments in the limelight certainly can’t be neglected. Modern technology helps us cheat a little and put shows where we want them rather than needing to places with natural sound reinforcement.

Part of this is because are somewhat slaves to audience expectations. If we have a show as an event rather than just a happening on the street, people have a certain expectation of length to motivate them to make the drive. Comfort and accessibility for aging audiences during that time period need to be addressed. They will also want to see and hear everything that is going on from whatever vantage point they are at. All these considerations shape the staging and seating arrangements for our performance.

Most nights we only need to direct audiences to locations that meet these expectations once a night (we assume they can find their way back pretty well after intermission.) For this project, we will need a good plan for doing it multiple times over the course of an evening. So even as rehearsals start today, we are starting to plan. Though not too carefully too soon as I am sure the layout will change a number of times before the show opens.

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Bean Counter Hero For A Few Days

As the guy controlling the budget, I often have to either say no or ask people to scale back their plans. Therefore, it gives me great joy when I am in the position of telling artists that they are limiting themselves and need to think bigger. I had that opportunity about a month ago when I was discussing the site specific performance we are developing with a local performance group for next Spring. One of the artistic directors was telling me a board member was encouraging her to limit the action of the show around the theatre building.

My whole intention in approaching her about a site specific work was to get away from the building and exploit the potential in other nearby locations. Also, given that the show is about celebrity and achieving that status is divorced from formal performance settings these days thanks to our ability to record and distribute events from practically anywhere, it seemed counter intuitive to have everything happen in the theatre environs.

Given that we are about nine months out from the performance, I told her I felt it was premature to start eliminating some nearby locations that ignited both our imaginations. It felt great to be telling someone to keep dreaming about a performance.

I did feel a little bad for the nameless board member I was contradicting. Perhaps this person has made valuable suggestions in the past, but for a little while in my mind I was relegating them to the clueless board member bin. While I was feeling the hero, I was envisioning this faceless person as the stereotypical board member who valued the product, but didn’t quite understand the process of the organization which he/she served.

I didn’t think it is was particularly fair that board members end up playing that role in so many organizations. And let me be clear, since I was envisioning a theoretical board member, I certainly can’t say this is the case at all with the board of our partner organization. Let me also say that I realize this little fantasy is not only unfair to the anonymous board member, but likely short lived since the time will come soon enough when I will begin tugging on the reins and conform to the parsimonious administrator stereotype. Allow me this short time in the sun, eh?

There have been many discussions about how board members do it to themselves by not involving themselves enough. It is also true that organizations work to marginalize involvement so that the board is little more than a rubber stamp for their activities and then stays out of the way.

It seems this might be another argument for arts people not the subscribe to the notion that you have to be poor and suffer to be true to your art. In the nascent stages of some arts organizations, boards are comprised of fellow artists who understand and are invested in the work. At a certain point, it becomes clear that if the organization is to expand, it will require people of influence and means. If financial success were frowned upon less in the arts world, there would be less of a need to choose between those who get it and those who got it because they wouldn’t seem so mutually exclusive.

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