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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Being sincere

 Over a week ago an op-ed piece appeared in The New York Times. I didn't clip and save it because it seemed so wrong-headed. But It bothered my son Tim, the adman, enough to bring it up in a phone call. It still bothers me.

The author was arguing against the advice to "be yourself," and against being "authentic." He ended with the advice to be "sincere." Neither Tim nor I could figure out the distinction being made. "Sincere" comes from the Latin, meaning pure, unadulterated, and has come to mean an expression of genuine feeling.

All well and good, if the author's intent was for us to go inside ourselves in search of our genuine feelings. But we seldom experience a pure feeling. By the time we're an adolescent, our response to any sensory experience is a blend of emotions based on our unique biography. My own internal response to Orlando and presidential politics is a mixture of fear, anger, and helplessness that brings back memories of a brutal childhood. No pure, unadulterated feelings there.

And it's horrible advice when applied to any external expression of our feelings. Not really much different from "be yourself." We are many selves. We are, hopefully, not the same self with a parent as with a lover, or the same self with our children as with our boss. We learn subconsciously which self goes to work, which self rides the subway to work, which self meets a friend for lunch.

Yes, when we're working or thinking creatively, we want to be as sincere to ourselves as possible. But when we present our work or our thoughts to any audience, whether one person or many, we can't do so effectively without considering that audience.

My children were 2, 5, and 7 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. We were living in Manhattan at the time; the older two were in public school on the fringes of Harlem. How to prepare them for school the next day? Certainly not with my own feelings—I can still hear the tolling of the Riverside Church carillon and the sirens screaming past up Broadway—but for what they might expect that their classmates were feeling.

Sincerely yours,

     

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

When Enough is Enough

Saturday I was playing a blind grandmother in a short film, "Sightseeing," being filmed by The Magic Group. Evan, the cinematographer argued, many times, against "exposition."

Writers are often told to "Show, not tell"—a related aphorism—but I'd never thought of it applying to film, which is all about showing.

Here's the plot: Grandson is going to Cannes. Grandmother is giving him advice, by telephone, about the places to see, how to spend his time, all sorts of grandmotherly advice.  Grandmother is only present in voice-over until the last scene, in which grandson returns from France with a gift—an album of 3-D photographs of the places she remembers, ending with one of the beach where she met his grandfather, a French painter now deceased.

The audience doesn't know until that last scene that the grandmother is blind. Here's where the exposition arguments began. They filmed the grandson outside my apartment, ringing the doorbell, me making my slow, blind way to the door. "That's exposition," Evan said. "Do we need that? How does that emotionally touch the audience?"

Okay, assuming that grandson is familiar with my home, they filmed a sequence in which grandson opens the door, calls out, I go to meet him, he guides me toward a chair and pulls up a chair beside me. "That's exposition," Evan said. "Do we need that? How does that emotionally touch the audience?"

All of the many tries at this scene involved, of course, lighting, sound, camera adjustments, and, if grandson was to be shown coming through the door, waiting for the right light outside. And we were improvising the dialogue.

We ended up with no doorbell, no meet-and-greet, but with grandson in a chair next to me,  saying, "I brought you something," and placing the photo album in my lap. Exactly when they show my face with what I call the "cataract sunglasses," the dark glasses I was given after cataract operations, will be a matter of editing. A "reveal" that should produce the desired emotional effect. And now the title has a double meaning.

What Evan was arguing for all along was editing. "Do we need that?" I'm a fan of both "Master Chef" and "Project Runway," and often hear the judges on both shows telling the chefs and designers to edit their work.

When I was writing my first book, "Clues to American Dance," I spent an enormous amount of time researching, trying to understand American Indian dance, and then trying to translate that understanding into words. I was explaining my troubles to a writing friend, who asked, "How many pages are you giving to Indian dance?" I began to laugh as I said, "Four pages with illustrations." He didn't need to say, bud did, "You need to learn when enough is enough."

 


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.