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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Go to Zero

Last week I went to Crafted: Stories over Coffee at Coffee Park Arts. What an amazing evening. Part way through, I thought, "I feel like I'm in church." Half an hour later Lynn Rhoades spoke those very words aloud.

Why? Because the performances were coming directly from the soul, and speaking directly to our souls.

Danny Dockery's song, "Kiss Me like You Don't Know Me," prompted Bob Moyer, the MC, to say, "You're talking about everyone's life in that song." The words can seem trite written here, but Danny was singing from a lost love. I had just lost a long-ago love, and was healed by the realization that I was not alone. Everyone in the room had lost a love, and Danny was singing his loss on our behalf.

Willie Holmes talked about the need to "go to zero" when he was learning to perform. That he had to give up all his preconceived notions about other performers that were successful and popular. He had to begin at zero, with who he was because of his singular experience of life.

Tommy Priest, who had organized the event, said he didn't want to use the word "perform" for what we'd just experienced. "You were engaging us, not performing for us."

I used to call what I teach "Performance," until performance became an academic discipline and went in an entirely different direction. For want of a better term, I now have "Stage Presence" on my business cards. "Presence" is the key word. Being fully present is the only way we can engage with others, whether on stage or off.

 


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Creative Spirit

I gave a DEAC talk,"We Can all Sing," at the Wake Forest University "Aging Re-Imagined" Symposium Friday and learned a few new things about public speaking in the process.

Writing vs. Speaking
I wrote a condensation of my talk when I applied to give the talk. After I learned that I'd been accepted, I kept writing. And writing. But stopped about 2 weeks before my talk because I realized that, when I practiced, I was trying to remember those lovely phrases I'd used in my writing. They were too formal, not the conversational style I wanted.  I also realized that if I kept forgetting one point or another, then some part of me was telling me to leave it out.

When we write we have to choose words that convey our meaning without our physical presence, our body language and tone of voice. And then there are all those grammar rules that have become second nature when we write, but exist only to help the reader and sound stilted when we use them in conversation. Or when we write dialog, for that matter.

Self-Identification
When I coach singer/songwriters, we discuss "patter" at some point—the talking between songs that is often part of that type of performance. We talk about how much and what they want to reveal about their personal lives, and how much and what their audiences want to know.

My writing critique group kept telling me I had to include myself and my achievements during the talk. My army son told me that he often hears that after one of his presentations has gone well—"Why didn't you say anything about your expertise, your background?" I tried, up until midnight the night before my talk. I practiced inserting an anecdote about myself here, or another there. Even one about my adopted grandchildren. Nothing worked. So, again, I realized that references to myself was not the direction I wanted to go at all. That's not who I am.

It's taken me a couple of days to recognize that my personal style of speaking involves a lot of facial expression, a lot of body movement, and that's what conveys who I am. During the talk itself, I felt my hips wriggle when I described the metamorphosis of a singer. Heard myself saying, "Phish," with a wave of my hand when I dismissed a common assumption about singing. I teared up during my last anecdote. I'd never practiced any of this. They were a complete surprise. Which leads me to

Going with the Flow
For a couple of days after the talk, I worried that I couldn't remember much of what I'd said (and of course I no longer had a written record of what I intended to say). My army son says the same thing happens to him after a good presentation. I've studied and taught Flow for decades, but I've never considered that not remembering the details of a Flow experience may be one of its characteristics. The overall experience, yes, but only a few moments here and there.

My central theme was the creative spirit, a subject that I'm passionate about. I had decided against speculating that perhaps the creative spirit could be called the soul. Not for that audience, I thought. Yet I heard it come out of my mouth, and felt no pushback in response. I hadn't expected laughter, but heard it often from the audience. Even heard a compassionate groan at one point. Meredith Holladay told me afterwards that she cried twice during my talk. None of these affects had been intentional on my part.

One statement I made that I do remember is that I believe the creative spirit is secondary only to the drive to survive. Intentions, of which I had many, are mental concepts. The creative spirit, however, uses all of us—body, emotions, and mind. When we allow the creative spirit to take over, to override our intentions, as I evidently did at many points during the process, then we're in Flow.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Believing with your Body

Although opposed, on principle, to the filming of theatre productions (they're 2 different media, with different methods and goals), I nevertheless went to see the filmed  Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus last week. And left at intermission.

But I did understand a little better 2 odd idiosyncrasies of mine. I fall asleep when I don't believe the actors. It's a strange kind of falling asleep. No drowsiness, no trying to stay awake, but instantaneous sleep. One moment I'm there, the next moment I'm gone.

Had it happen when I was a juror several months ago. Bailiff had to come over and wake me up. Embarrassing, and potential legal problem, so I have to give up jury duty, which I do love. In that instance, I fell asleep because the witness was lying.

I don't know what deep-seated past trauma causes this "I'm outta here" reaction, but it began a quarter-century ago during a performance of a rock opera. How could I fall asleep with a rock band amplified to the nth degree? I had no idea then.

But I had time to think about the why during my moments of wakefulness last week, and  to notice that I woke up any time 1 of the characters spoke, and then I'd be back in la-la land. Not that there wasn't a lot of yelling going on, mind you.

And to think about why I couldn't hear what some of the actors were saying.  Others in the audience were laughing at lines I hadn't heard. What was that about?

My hearing is very good. I make a living listening to students. But last week I misheard a student no more than 3 feet away from me. I thought she was singing "touching," which made no sense. She thought she was singing "ca-ching."

Both issues have to do with the use of the body. If an actor doesn't believe what they're saying with their bodies, not just their minds, I don't believe them any more than I believe a lying witness in a trial. The Donmar players were being marvelously athletic with their bodies, but only only 1 of them believed his lines all the way down his spine.

Shakespearean lines can be difficult for an actor—how to distinguish between the poetry lines and the prose lines, for example. And I did admire some of the actors' technical delivery. In between my naps. But I'm likely not to hear correctly what they're saying if they're not emotionally believing the lines, and emotion involves the body.

Decades ago, I had a high school student who was unable, or didn't want, to feel the emotion of the words she was singing in her body. Nothing I tried worked. Until I asked her to focus on the music instead of the words. That freed her to love the music, quite passionately. I could say, "You didn't love that A;" she could try the phrase again, loving the A, and the word she was singing became believable.

She went on to an international career, and I went on to use that method with other students who were afraid to access their emotions with words, and felt safer feeling the emotion in the more abstract music.

Our emotions are complex physical reactions to sensory perceptions. These reactions involve the muscles, nervous systems, the entire body. Closing down any of the physical sensations throughout the body won't make the emotions go away. But I'll fall asleep.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What Is Art?

I wrote a column for the Community Arts Cafe online newsletter with this same title. Then I used the example of the Rocky statue that was being moved to its present location at the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. A huge furor in Philly papers at the time. "This is not art." in the letters-to-the-editor. "But people like it, so it is art," answered other letters. My conclusion at the time was that intent of the artist determined what art was. The Rocky statue was originally constructed for commercial reasons, to promote the movie. Most of the works inside the Museum were created because of an artist's vision, or belief. Today I would probably add that the creator's intent for the audience's experience also matters.

Saturday my friend Sheila and I went to an experimental theatre event at an arts festival. We left somewhere in the middle because Sheila was feeling ill (and wouldn't recover for 5 hours). As soon as we were out the door, she asked, "Is that art?" The intent of the playwright, as explained in the program, was to understand the character of a child molester. As explained to a newspaper interviewer, her intent was therapeutic, that as a victim of child abuse, she had been healed by the process.

What we experienced as audience members was a woman portraying an uncle describing a pleasurable incident of sexually fondling his 7-year-old nephew. We left as the uncle was telling us about the boy's moans of pleasure.

Sheila became ill, partly because there were children in the audience, partly because of the destructive energy she was feeling from the stage.

I became angry because the playwright hadn't done her research, and was putting misinformation on the stage. I was for 10 years co-founder and contributing editor for a newsletter for abuse survivors, worked closely with an Asst. DA in Philadelphia on the issues, and had been asked by a therapist to assist her with a survivors support group. I knew that the playwright's characterization of both the uncle and nephew could not have been more incorrect.

Can the arts be therapeutic? Absolutely. Because so many of my voice students reported the healing effect of singing, I considered getting a music therapy degree. Then decided, No. My intent wasn't therapy. My intent was leading people into making music.

What we saw on Saturday wasn't art; it was self-therapy.




Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Late-Life Creativity

Martin S. Lindauer wrote in the preface to his book, Aging, Creativity, and Art: A Positive Perspective on Late-Life Development, that he looked in the mirror on his 40th birthday and thought that his productive life was over. He believed, because of everything he had read as a student, and later as a professor of psychology, that "the best predictor of adult creativity, according to a great deal of scientific evidence, is youthful precocity." If he hadn't achieved anything he considered worthwhile by 40, what was the point of trying?

But he took an art class in his 50s. Unhappy with what he'd produced in one of the classes, his teacher told him that there was always tomorrow. A platitude, to be sure, but it led him to research and gather data about late-life creativity. And to prove that the "experts" he'd been reading all those years were wrong.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I Am

Anne Civitano and I went to the Delta Arts Center Friday night to see the Biggers exhibit and Nathan Ross Freeman's Authoring Action. I go to see Nathan's teenage authors whenever I can and always marvel at their high  level of performance.

Friday night was a bit different. 4 authors who had chosen one of the paintings to study, and then written lyrical essays or poetry that applied what they found there to their own lives in contemporary society.

Each performer began by saying, "I AM . . ., in a voice that resonated throughout the gallery. We in the audience were so stunned by the passion in the first girl's piece that we didn't know whether to applaud. But with each performer the applause grew longer and louder.

We heard some great ideas, some great phrases, but what Anne and I talked about on our way home were the "I AMs." We think of the teenage years as a troubled search for identity—wanting to fit in, trying to find where we belong. And we had just seen and heard 4 young people who knew who they were, who believed in themselves and in what they had to say. Believed in their right to be and to say. Believed passionately.







Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What Is Creativity? - 32

A few decades ago, I had a voice student who had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and worked at RCA Labs (back when that company existed) on the high resolution camera that now allows us to see the stitching on a baseball thrown at some huge mph. A most rational man, he had developed a logical plan for creative thought. Before he went to bed, he thought about the problem he was facing at work. The next morning, while shaving, he consciously opened his mind to any wild thought that passed through it. That was often - not always - the solution to his problem.

My morning routine isn't intended to solve problems in my writing - I often get those answers right after I've quit writing for the day - it's just a routine required by old age. The thyroid pill 1/2 hour before breakfast; hot compresses and drops for my aging eyes; a few sips of last night's cold coffee to just get me going. But during that half hour, I often get wild ideas. And I know if I don't do something about them immediately, I'll later dismiss them as stupid.

I had one of those ideas Sunday morning. Last month I had contacted Sarah to ask if I could use her name and age to illustrate a point in an application I was writing. She did give me permission, but said she now had Parkinson's and had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Then early this month I met Christina Soriano, who teaches a dance class for those with Parkinson's and wants to add Alzheimer's patients. Loved her approach because she's able to counteract the smallness in steps, personhood, and voice that is so often a Parkinson's patient's response to the loss of balance. I emailed Sarah about this, wondering if there might not be such a program near her in Philadelphia.

Sarah replied that she could no longer drive. Of course, stupid me. I replied that I'd ask Christina's advice soon, but knew she was going through a particularly busy time right now. Then Sunday morning, with the hot compresses, I remembered that Kristina (I know, confusing, but this other friend's name is with a K), a friend who lives near Sarah, is a massage therapist who used to benefit from lots of different dance therapies. Then I remembered that I'd heard or read the day before that this particular Parkinson's dance program had originated at the Mark Morris studios. And I knew, from research for my dance book years ago, that he often took non-dancers into his troupe. Then I remembered that Christina (with a C) had said she had studied or interned at Mark Morris.

Bingo! I emailed Kristina (with a K), subject "A Wild Idea", with the above information, thinking she was close enough to NY to look into possible training at Mark Morris. The idea seemed so preposterous that I didn't look up the proper website for her, as I would ordinarily do.

Ten minutes later Kristina (with a K) emailed back with the info that there was such a dance program for Parkinson's at a hospital not 5 miles away and she and Sarah would be checking it out.

What amazes me is the process. A bit of research from 30 years ago, something I heard on NPR or read the day before, a memory of Kristina's (with a K) enthusiasm for dance therapy, all of this zip-zapped around the brain and collected into an idea that turned out not to be so wild after all.