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Monday, September 21, 2009

And now, a musical interlude

Recent visitors to my blog may have noticed some jaunty little tunes emanating from the bottom of the page. I realized I hadn't really given an introduction to my newly-added musical background, so I thought this would be an excellent time for a music-related post.
Music has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mom is a rabid music lover, and one of my earliest memories is of her singing me to sleep at night. My grandparents (my mom's side) are also crazy about music. Every year since I was four, they've taken me to a local ragtime festival, and I've grown up tapping my foot to such classics as the Maple Leaf Rag and the Easy Winners. My dad's side of the family was never quite as into music, but even so, my dad enjoys a good toe-tapper as much as any of us.
Although we may not be aware of it, music is an integral part of almost everything we do. When we see a movie, there is often an underscore that we don't even notice, highlighting the most dramatic scenes of the film. When we walk into a store, an appropriate radio station or soundtrack greets us and invites us to browse the aisles as long as we please. There is music for all types and tastes: cheery, sad, fast, slow, danceable, breathtaking, etc.
Music infiltrates my life in many other ways as well. I am a hobbyist cello player, and I especially enjoy puzzling out tunes from movies and favorite artists on my instrument. When I write, I often put on a selection of Chinese instrumental music, as it helps me concentrate while also giving me energy. As far as the theatre is concerned, musicals are one of my favorite kinds of shows. From the current Broadway hits (Wicked and Legally Blonde, to name a few) to some golden oldies (Oklahoma and Annie Get Your Gun) to some obscure ones that nobody else has probably even heard off (Zanna, Don't, anyone?) my playlists are choc full of showtunes.
And speaking of playlists, this would be a perfect time to bring up yet another way that I express my creativity.
I am the proud owner of an iphone, so I can and do carry my tunes with me wherever I go. Scroll through my song list and you'll be greeted my an insane amount of variety. I'm not the type that listens to just one or two genres. If you put my ipod on shuffle, you may be catapulted from pop to 60's music to showtunes to movie soundtracks to Chinese instrumental to children's music to country pop to Christmas tunes and everything in between.
What's the story with all the variety? Well, the trick is, I keep an open mind. There was a time when I would have turned up my nose at the idea of country pop. My mom has always said she isn't a fan of country, so even though I'd never really tried the genre, I stuck with her opinion. Then I started listening to Shania Twain, thinking she fit more into the "pop" category. Then, once I found the wonderful world of Pandora, I created a station for Shania and started listening to such artists as Rascall Flatts, Carrie Underwood, and Jo Dee Messina. And I discovered something--I actually liked it!
So now I'm careful not to wrinkle my nose at something before I give it a shot. Right now in school (have I mentioned that I'm homeschooled? Hmm--material for a later blog post, I think. :P) we're doing a unit on music appreciation. We're working on the baroque period at the moment (one of my mom's favorites.) Again, I've never been much of a classical music type, but now that I'm listening with open ears, I'm finding some songs I really enjoy. Maybe some Bach will find its way into my ipod one of these days.
But the point of all this is, my music is me. Every song that I make room for on my ipod is important to me. Whether it's a tune from a silly Disney movie from ages ago, a Christmas carol in the middle of July, a Hilary Duff song with lyrics that speak to me, or dance song that's just darn fun to listen to, every song on my ipod will tell you something about me. And if you look at the list as a whole, you'll definitely get a good sense of my personality.
So that playlist you're hearing on this blog, that's a tiny piece of my master playlist. Maybe I'll post a few of my favorite artists and albums sometime--the songs that are playing are some of them. Each one will tell you something abuot me. "Breathe" is my favorite song by one of my all-time favorite artists, Michelle Branch. "Celestial Soda Pop" is the song that goes with a number at a puppet studio I work for. (More about that in the next post.) "Positivity" sums up my view of the world. "Candle on the Water" is from one of my favorite Disney movies ever, Pete's Dragon.
And...in its own way, isn't creating a personal playlist which catalogues, through notes and lyrics, all the things that are important to you...isn't that creative?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Building Bridges

Today my little brother Ben (he's four years younger than me) interrupted me while I was reading a book on Yiddish theatre. He told me he'd just finished reading a short story which had creeped him out and confused him, and he wanted me to read it and tell him what I thought it was about. When I asked him how long it was, he informed me that it was only about five pages.
Five pages? I thought. Not very long. But I gave the story the benefit of the doubt--my thus-far only published story is only four pages, so there you go. Agreeably, I picked up the anthology, flipped to the page he indicated, and started in.
About fifteen minutes later, I closed the book and turned to Ben, who was giving me an expectant look. "I have to tell you, kid...I have no idea what it's about, either."
We spent the next half hour trying desperately to put some meaning to the mystery story. We both agreed that there SEEMED to be some profound message SOMEWHERE in the five-page puzzler, but neither of us could put our finger on it. Ben was more outraged than I was; he's an avid reader, and it bothered him, I think, that this simple story had thwarted his inquiries. I was somewhat amused by the whole thing; I wondered what the author might say in explanation of himself, if questioned about the story.
Now, I never want to condemn another artists' work. As I've said before, I think art is anything that comes from man's creative labor. That said, the story both puzzled and intrigued me. The ending of the piece was extremely ambigous--there was no resolution, as far as I could tell. It just sort of...stopped. It almost felt to me as if the author forgot to write an ending. I know this isn't the case, but it still bothered me that there was absolutely no finish.
But above all, what bothered me most was that I had to work to understand the story. I still don't understand it. I believe that in the storytelling arts (such as theater and writing, which are of course my focuses) the audience shouldn't have to work too hard to understand the message.
Take Shakespeare, for example. Although I'm sure Billy Shakes didn't realize that his work would be nigh-incomprehensible for the masses hundreds of years later--or even that it would still be around--the fact remains that Shakespeare is tricky stuff for a lot of us. I've read several of his plays and taken classes to understand them, and I still have trouble sometimes. But the thing is, Shakespeare isn't meant to be read--at least, his plays aren't. They're meant to be performed.
When I saw Much Ado About Nothing in August (yes, I'm FINALLY getting around to talking about that, lol) I'd never read the play. I had a basic idea of the plot, but I didn't know much. My brother knew even less. Yet we both agreed by the end of the show that we understood most of what had happened.
Why? The acting. Perhaps we couldn't translate every single word that came out of the actor's mouth, but we instantly understood the intent behind it. If an actor states blandly, "Friendship is constant in all other things, save in the office and affairs of love: Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues; Let every eye negotiate for itself, and trust no agent," we are, perhaps, confused. But if this same actor laments this while clutching his chest, we understand instantly,
a-ha, he's been betrayed! In other words, we as an audience don't have to struggle to keep up with the story.
In the story that I read today, however, I was left staring at the last sentence, wondering, did I miss something? Did a page get ripped out of this book? What's the meaning here? What did the author want to tell me when he wrote this? I still have no idea what the answers to these questions are. My brother read the story twice and he has no idea what the answers are. Again, I'm not saying the story was bad, or that it was badly written. But I was dissatisfied after reading it, and dissapointed. I wished that I had been able to grasp what the author wanted me to know.
When we create, we build a bridge to invite other people into our world. We say, "Look--this is the way I see things. Would you like to look through my eyes at my universe?" We must remember that the bridge will always seem safe to those of us who built it, and the path to our world will always seem easy to understand for those of us who constantly traverse it. It's all to easy to get caught up in our own creativity and forget the outside world. If you create art only for yourself, there is nothing wrong with this--it gives you an outlet, and a good one at that. But if you create with the intention of sharing your creations with outside viewers, it's always good to leave a few signposts along the way to the bridge.
We wouldn't want our audience to lose their way. ;-)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Finishing the hat

Stephen Sondheim is one of my favorite composer/lyricists in the world of musical theatre. I find his shows to be thought-provoking, powerful, romantic, and funny all rolled into one. You never know exactly what you'll come across in a Sondheim show; from a murderous barber to a mixed-up fairy tale, it's always an adventure.
One of his shows, Sunday in the Park with George, details the life of artist George Seurat. Throughout the first act, you're able to watch him working on his famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But you also see him seeking--and ultimately losing--the heart of his young mistress, Dot. It is clear to the audience that Dot wants to love George, but is unable to because he is always so distant, so involved in his art. George explains this from his own perspective in a moving number, Finishing the Hat.
George is busily working on his painting, trying to create a picture, trying to paint a hat. He knows that Dot is going to leave him, and in a way, he is unhappy...but he can't experience the situation fully. As he begins to describe, he can never see the world the way other people do, because he's always "looking through a window" to see how the world looks. Here's the last few lines of the song:

"And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, "Well, I give what I give."
But the women who won't wait for you knows
That, however you live,
There's a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat...
Starting on a hat..
Finishing a hat...
Look, I made a hat...
Where there never was a hat."

I think most artists will agree that art changes your view of everything. George, perhaps, is an extreme case--but isn't it true that inspiration can spring from life's worst tragedies?
Here's an example. Last summer, I had a huge falling out with my best friend, and it was pretty much decided that we should cut off our friendship. It was not a friendly break-up, and besides the natural sadness at losing a friend, I was shaken up confidence-wise. I wondered if I could have done something different, if I had really been a good friend up until that point, etc...even though my family and other friends continued to assure me that it had NOT been my fault, it still took me awhile to get my confidence back.
But throughout this whole experience, there was a part of me standing back, watching the drama play out, saying, "Wow. This is SO weird. I've got to make sure to remember this for a character someday."
...which is quite bizarre, if you think about it. In the middle of this big emotional upheaval, I was considering my art. I was flipping through character motivations, wondering what play I could perform where I could use this emotion--or, alternatively, what story I could craft around the situation.
As artists, we've taken on a unique challenge. Our art requires inspiration; inspiration comes from real life. Although not all art is tragic (I would argue that most isn't), it is true that most art needs conflict. And conflict isn't usually something as simple as needing to mow the lawn. In writing, conflict is the meat of the story that keeps the readers on the edges of their seats, hoping against hope that the characters will make it through okay. In theatre, it's what keeps the actors from shuffling around the stage unmotivated, complaining halfheartedly that their cat meows too loudly. In the storytelling arts, conflict is the reason the art exists. Without it, stories would be boring.
So, as artists, we almost have to take a step back from our own troubles and ask, "How can I use this?" Not all stories arise from real-life situations, but the emotions you use to create your art must be real to you. If you can't relate to the character(s) you're creating, there's no way the intended audience will be able to.
And think about this: no one else has experienced a situation the way you have. Sure, my break-up with my friend was painful, but it was mine--I am the only one who will ever go through that particular situation in that particular way. So, as an author and actor, I am the only one who can give that particular emotion to my art. I'm not saying I'm the only person in the world who's broken up with a friend, but I am the only one who's broken up with that particular friend, in that particular way, at that particular time. So...shouldn't I use that particular emotion to make something truly unique?

"Studying the hat,
Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Theatre endeavors

As promised, here is a brief (but enthusiastic!) report on my dealings in theatre of late.
Just recently I was contacted by one of my friends at Buck Creek Players, who was wondering if I'd like to run sound for their upcoming show, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage. I've run sound at Buck Creek once before, for their production of Mark Twain Tonight. I'm not sure what my rehearsal schedule is going to be for this--I'm supposed to be meeting the director tomorrow evening, and I assume I'll get a better idea of what's going on then.
Then, starting October, I'll be assistant directing Home For Christmas, also at Buck Creek Players. The lady who's directing is a good theatre friend of mine; she produced the first show I was ever in, was in Mark Twain Tonight, and got me set up with my first assistant director gig (which was last spring.) She's really talented and super nice, so I'm looking forward to working with her.
I'm also slated to stage manage at Buck Creek next spring, but I'll give you more details about that when it gets closer to time.
Buck Creek Players is one of my home bases for theatre; Indiana Repertory Theatre is another. I just got out of summer acting camp there last July; it's an amazing place, and if you ever get a chance to see one of their shows, I HUGELY recommend them. I have not met someone working at that theatre, be it artistic director to janitor, who hasn't been creative and kind and wonderful to work with. I don't have anything in particular coming up at this theatre, as far as I know (I'm much more likely to take classes there than to be in productions there, lol) but you can be sure that I'll be attending shows. If nothing else, I'll be seeing their annual production of A Christmas Carol, which always features an amazing cast and is fantastic to watch.
I'll do a more expanded feature on each of these shows as they come and go, but for the time being, there's where I am in the acting world. :)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

...but is it art?

Ever seen this before?

And no, I'm not asking if you've ever seen a urinal at any point in your life. I'm asking if you've ever seen/heard of Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain", which was one of his contributions to the Dada movement of art. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, he bought a urinal, turned it the wrong way, signed a fake name on it (R. Mutt) and submitted it to an artist's exhibition, where it was not displayed. As far as he was concerned, it was art.
Or was it?
I suppose the question is...what is art, anyways? Just type in "definition of art" in google and you'll get a multitude of answers. Here's just a few: "the products of human creativity," "the creation of beautiful or significant things," "the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance."
Come to think of it, what is "beautiful" or "significant" or "appealing"? I mean, personally, I think that the poems I wrote as a seven-year-old are significant. Does that make them art? Isn't significance in the eye of the beholder? Same thing with beautiful and appealing--what one person finds appealing may make another person feel sick to their stomach.
To return to Duchamp, then. Obviously, he found his "Fountain" significant. Whatever the rest of the world thought of his work, Duchamp had something he wanted to say, and he did so. Isn't that admirable, in its own right? Sure, I look at "Fountain" and think, "Hmmmm....that's a bit weird." But Duchamp thought it was beautiful. Isn't that sort of cool?
I like the first definition I found best, actually. I think that art is nothing more or less than "the products of human creativity." Art isn't necessarily something you do for outside approval--art is more often something you do for yourself, in my opinion. Maybe you share your art, but in the end, no one can put paintbrush to canvas or voice to notes quite the same way you do. Whatever the rest of the world thinks, if you let your creativity run rampant and make something special to you, then you've created art--no matter what it is.
...phew! That was quite wordy, wasn't it? My brother and I were debating the meaning of art the other day, and I decided it would make a good blog post. I swear I'll lay off the sermons and write something a little more lighthearted next--perhaps an update on my theatre endevaors. (I've got some great stuff coming up in that department.) :)
See you next time!