Friday, February 03, 2012

The So-Called Need to Fail

"You've Cott Mail" today is all about "the need to fail." I'm with Adam Thurman on this one: "I've had to learn (the hard way) that the only failures that move us forward are the ones where you prepare and execute to the best of your ability . . . and then things just don't work out." As a college professor, I occasionally am asked by a student, "What do I need to do to get a B in this class?" My answer is always the same: "Try to get an A an don't make it." I don't have much patience with anyone who shoots for mediocrity.

If what is meant is that it is necessary for artists (or anyone else, for crying out loud -- could we get over artistic exceptionalism, please?) to take risks in order to succeed, well, duh. It's not success to keep doing the same safe thing over and over. But failure is something that happens, not something that needs to happen. Sometimes basketball players miss their shots, but they don't need to miss their shots. And the best players, when they miss a shot, keep shooting. What is it Wayne Gretsky said? You miss 100% of the shots you don't take? Exactly. And if you need permission to fail, well, there's not much to say about that -- you have my sympathies. Put on your Big Boy Undies, take a deep breath, prepare, work hard, and roll the big dice.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Art in a Human Context

"It would be better if art were nameless, and that those of us who write about art in books and the reviews and newspapers, always clacking about art, or Art, or ART, were constrained somehow by good taste or a hickory club either to do art in its appropriate human context, and in doing be it, or keep still. For art suffers more than most activities in being withdrawn from the contexts of living. It is categorized as something special."

Baker Brownell, The Human Community, 1950 



"Modern art activity can provide a new birth and new creative directions of usefulness for such a community. As art activity is developed, the community is recreated The vital roots of every phase of life are touched As the community is awakened to its opportunity in the arts, it becomes a laboratory through which the vision of the region is reformulated and extended And as the small community discovers its role, as the small community generates freshness of aesthetic response across the changing American scene, American art and life are enhanced."

Robert Gard, Arts in The Small Communities, 1967 

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Maturing as an Artist

In a fascinating interview on Huffington Post, Natalie Merchant discusses motherhood, her album Leave Your Sleep, and her development as an artist. Among the many thoughtful things she has to say is this exchange (with emphasis added): 
You just announced some upcoming performances as a guest soloist at orchestral shows. Is this the next direction for you? 
I enjoy working with the wide variety of instruments the symphony provides, and the textures and the emotional resonance of those instruments. I'm trying to find a way to mature in this field called pop music, which really loathes the aging process and loves youth. I just feel like I don't want to do the same thing I did when 25 or 35. The songs have endurance and have retained a lot of validity. But I'm focusing on how to make the experience appropriate for the way I feel now, with new material.It's an awkward thing to talk about, but it's true: It's possible to be a musician, but you can't be a pop musician and be a woman and continue in this forever. There's so much lived experience and some wisdom I've gained in my life, and there must be room for that. Emmylou Harris is still making good records; Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel matured and have grown through pop music -- and nobody expects them to do the same thing as they did in their early 20s.
Merchant is talking about pop music, which is has its own unique issues, but I think it there is also an echo in the theatre. When studies like that of the 2010 OOB Survey of Theatre Practitioners, which Tom Loughlin analyzed in a post entitled "Theatre Facts," shows that
  •  67% of all indie actors are between the ages of 21-40, a 19-year span. The highest age group is 26-30 year-olds at 24%. The average age is 36, the median is 33.There is an attrition rate of 50% from the 26-30 age group (24%) to the 36-40 age group (12%). All the percentages over 40 are in single digits. Only 20% of indie actors are between 40-55, a 15-year span.
  • You’re single and childless. 51% of you are single, and 18% are living with a partner (not married). 92% of you have no children. I am assuming this 92% childlessness rate runs across all age groups.
It isn't that plays written and performed by young people lack value -- quite the contrary. But there is something to be said for maturing in a field and writing from the lived experience and wisdom that, as Merchant says, is acquired through living. This is what author Chimamanda Adichi calls "The Danger of a Single Story," something which leads to stereotypes and a lack of richness.  Hollywood films in partoicular suffer from a relentless focus on the fantasies and experiences of youth. This is why a film like, say, The Tree of Life that Issac writes about so movingly seems like a miracle -- it actually addresses the issues of a mature character confronting real life. 
So when we talk about the distribution of arts funding, we're not only talking about diversity of race, gender, and geography, but also of age age and experience. If we have a system that drives people out of the art form as they become older, their experiences and their wisdom and their stories are lost. Which leads to two areas that need to develop: 1) a broader and more sustainable business model and infrastructure for professionals, of course, and (perhaps less obviously) 2) a stronger infrastructure for participatory arts in which people who have rich lived experience are encouraged to share their stories, share their wisdom, share their experiences through all of the arts. 
As an educator of theatre students, I care about #1; as the head of CRADLE, I also care about #2. It seems to me that they go together. We need to create a culture that honors all experiences.