Aug 25, 2013

Oh, Ambition...

In one week I will attempt to perform a six hour and 20 minute long improvisation, alone on stage.
This is a crazy idea. What drove me to think this would be a good idea?
My stupid ambition, that's what.
I have had a great deal of ambition, but it has not been a steady stream. Whenever I’ve had an idea most of the time I've found myself bound and determined to achieve that goal, or at least to give it my best try, and usually I have some fun in the pursuit. Well, the fun comes either in the pursuit, or in the success of completion. The best is when it comes as part of the process, when I am fulfilled by simply being immersed in what I sought to do.
In remembering back over the ambitious ventures that I’ve gone after earlier in my life, I can kinda pinpoint one factor that allowed me to pursue my endeavors with such vigorous ambition. That factor, I think, was that I felt I had nothing to lose.
Nothing to lose. What a powerful motivator. It single-handedly kinda removes all fear from any ambitious idea. The disgusting truth, one that I’m so ashamed to admit, is that having “nothing to lose” is a luxury that has faded as I've entered further into adulthood.
As I inch closer and closer to the milestone age of 40, I’m so increasingly annoyed with the fact that I do, in fact, have a few things to lose. I have grown aware and precious with my process. I want. I want to make projects better than the projects that came before. So now there is the danger of sliding backwards, of wasting time, of being found out as not as good as I had hoped I'd be.
Ambition has a double edge. That gap where the nothing-to-lose once was can also prevent the move to bigger things. It can be an impediment to ultimate success.
Also, as I grow older I value other things in life, besides artistic success. I have a wife now, and as close as I can muster to a day job, and bills to pay and so on. I have responsibilities. I value my family, my friends (small circle that it is), travel and so on.
So my struggle, now, is figuring out how to balance these other points of value into my life with making theatre and art . I have never been one to only make art as my absolute priority, but time is passing and... and...

Aug 23, 2013

Art is a hella-damn hammer

I have been doing a great deal of thinking and researching about making art lately. In fact, I have done a lot more thinking about making art than actually making art. Which is a trap I occasionally fall into.
I was particularly thinking about that advice often given to writers, to “write what you know.” This isn’t completely terrible.  But, we also hear, “don’t write what you know because what you know is boring.  Instead, write what you would want to read.”  This is also not without merit (I come down more on this side of things).  The thing is, I feel both lines of thought really downplay the purpose and potential of art, particularly writing as art.  They take the imagination and ambition of the writer at face value, which is kind of insulting to both the artist and to the art itself.
I love the Brecht quote, “Art is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.”  This simple statement totally conveys the awesome power of art so well.  Art is not, as is commonly advised, meant to be a mere reflection of life as it is or as it was.  Art is not even meant to attempt predictions at what the future is likely to hold.  Instead, art is a bad-ass, hella-damn hammer, an instrument meant to shatter our limitations, to imagine that which has never before been imagined, to build the world we want, to lift us up to greater heights of humanity than we have ever known before.
Art as a hammer, is art worthy of the name.  That is the type of art we should all aspire to create.  Even if we fail, if we totally miss the mark, our lives will be better for the attempt. I must continually remind myself to keep in mind the hammer as I move forward in bashing into the world whatever it is I am compelled to create.

Aug 21, 2013

WMC 2013

Ruth and I attended the 2013 Weapons of Mass Creation Festival in Cleveland, Ohio last weekend. It was a blast! Held at the Cleveland Public Theatre (great space!), the WMC Fest is primarily for designers and bands. What was super wonderful about Ruth and I attending was that, unlike when we go to Fringe Festivals of theatre-related stuff, at WMC we were not part of the design community. I dabble in illustration and cartooning a bit, but Ruth doesn't at all. We were like strangers in a strange land and that made it all the more exciting. Most of the speakers were great, many giving really inspiring talks about the creative process in general.

I rented a car and drove out to Cleveland from Dallas. Stayed at a hostel in downtown Nashville to split up the drive. It was refreshing to get up and chat with a New Zealander over coffee. Hostels are good reminders of how big the world actually is. Ruth flew in to Cleveland on Friday night and I picked her up (she had to turn in grades).  

It was so nice to get out of town. Compared with last year, we have been somewhat sedentary this year. No big trips and just a handful of jaunts off to gigs out of town (Austin, OKC). It sure was  a big reminder of how much we miss traveling. We plan to take care of the time and money issues that have prevented us from jetting about, so next year is filled with big adventures like WMC.

They had big chalk in the "beer Garden" next to the main venue so I added Little Goldfish to the landscape.
Ruth and I enjoyed lots of good drink, music, talks, arts and eats.
Timothy Goodman did a talk called "I Want to Get Away with Sh*t"... totally a highlight!
Des Ark was awesome!
I bought this sweet print by AirType Studios
The Cleveland Public Theatre was an awesome venue!
Other highlights included F. Stokes rapping freestyle in the center of a pulsating circle, Jacqui Oakley talking about developing one's style, Caroline Moore discussing what she's cribbed from the DIY punk scene, and especially Brandon Rike's talk about just putting your head down and getting to work.

In fact, the whole WMC experince was a nice bit of icing on the cake of a whole mess of creative thinking I've been doing lately. I have several awesome projects in the pipe line, some well outside my comfort zone. The festival was a nice reminder that, yeah, it is a good thing to live your life putting things out into the world.

Aug 13, 2013

Historical Artistic Significance

So I have been thinking lately about the theatre and visual artists I admire... the ones from history both far and near. I have been trying to reason out what they all have in common as far as how they rose to prominence. I mean, what makes a playwright (well, any theatre artist, or, well... artist) important, and therefore, remembered? The exact formula varies in every case, and to be sure, there is no definitive recipe, but typically a person of historical artistic significance has some combination involving several things (probably not all, but most) :
  • some combination of the skill, talent and originality of their practice
  • A substantial masterpiece or work that is representative of their oeuvue
  • a compelling personal biography, often tying them in with their time and place
  • their presence in important venues, festivals, anthologies, etc.
  • their popular appeal
  • Or their critical/ academic appeal 
The most influential artists hail from every period, school, and movement. They can be Old Masters like Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere or Goldoni, trailblazers like Jarry, Beckett , Brecht and Wellman, or solid contemporary (or near contemporary) scribes like O'Neill, Miller, Churchill, Shepard or Mamet . The history of theatre is long and offers many examples. And this doesn't even touch on all the iconoclastic non-playwrights like Garrick, Bernhardt, Irving, Craig, and so on. All are indisputably important, but they each took very different paths to entering the canon.
More often than not, I believe, an engaging life story is a key part of the mix. Christopher Marlowe, for instance, was hailed during his tragically short lifetime, so besides being considered a talent to rival Shakespeare, he is most remembered for his death. Marlowe was stabbed in the eye in a bar brawl under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Marlowe is also tied to his time and place: Elizabethan England.

To take a non-playwright as an example for a moment, Edwin Booth's narrative is almost like a play itself. From a volatile theatre family he rises to success until his brother assassinates Lincoln. Edwin Booth must then make the greatest comeback in history. His appeal to theatre history  is like the appeal of fine artists to museum goers and collectors alike - it has always been bound up with the artist's personal story. 

This story often epitomizes the romantic narrative of the doomed genius. From the world of art lets look at Vincent van Gogh’s biography. Though markedly more tragic since he never received recognition during his short lifetime, his story has likewise become inseparable from his incredibly popular and visionary paintings. Another example: Caravaggio, an aesthetic rebel in his time who has become one of the quintessential Old Masters, was notorious for getting into bar fights and died in exile at age 38 after killing a man in Rome.

Is it necessary to have insanity, disaster and the aura of doomed genius? I'm not convinced that the artist's personal narrative must include tragedy and death, but it must be compelling. A little struggle in the story is not a bad thing. It should be pointed out, one's personal narrative is often left to the whims of history, rather than self-constructed by the artist his or herself (with key exceptions, of course, such as Alfred Jarry, Andy Warhol, etc.). However, this emphasis on the artist's life story seems to have a lot to do with the artist's place in history. For every Edwin Booth there is a Lawrence Barrett (now nearly forgotten 19th Century actor-manager).  
Affiliation with a revered movement or time period can often boost an artist’s status. When we hear Elizabethan we think Shakespeare. Alfred Jarry is indistinguishable from the pseudo-science he "invented" called Pataphysics. Taking a page from more contemporary writers, Mac Wellman is the banner-carrier for New Language playwriting that rose up out of the early 1990s (though it is hard to tell if he'll end up being really historically significant). Spaulding Gray influenced a whole generation of sit-at-table monologists telling personal stories directly to audiences from simple outlines.

Sometimes, one-hit-wonders make their way into history books by sake of time and place or specific movements. My beloved Edmond Rostand wrote several plays, but it is his CYRANO DE BERGERAC that launched him into history books. His movement was neo-romanticism and the time period and place was tremendously important. That he wrote it in Paris in the 1890s (fin de siècle, post-Franco-Prussian War, post-Commune, the Belle Époque, in the midst of homegrown anarchist terrorism and the civil unrest of the Dreyfus Affair) is not a small reason for that play's almost impossible impact. That his anachronistic CYRANO stands out in a Europe neck-deep in Ibsenesque Realism should also not be over-looked.

In art, Georges Braque kept at Cubist painting throughout his career, and is indelibly associated with it, even while his friend Pablo Picasso continued to evolve, becoming the quintessential modernist genius. Initially labelled a fauvist, by the end of his life Matisse explored the furthest reaches of color with his paper cut collages and laid a path for many, many artists that came after him.
At the same time, many artists become marked as important specifically because their work stands out from any movement or classification. In this category, you have Samuel Beckett, with his tackling of the ultimate mystery and despair of human existence combined with his biting comic, and cathartic, humor and sparse staging. Also, see Rostand's CYRANO DE BERGERAC above. 

Speaking of CYRANO DE BERGERAC, it must be pointed out that most artists have at least one work they are most known for, often the jewel of their oeuvre, their masterpiece. CYRANO was Rostand's biggest hit and the cornerstone of his legacy. Despite being a successful novelist and Pulitzer-prize winner for her early 1930s play ALISON'S HOUSE, Susan Glaspell is most remembered for her one-act TRIFLES. Of all her work, TRIFLES appears in countless literary anthologies as a representative of early feminist literature and is ultimately what she is remembered for.

Alfred Jarry will always be known for UBU ROI. Tennessee Williams will be known for STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE. Shakespeare will be known for HAMLET. In art, Edvard Munch is known for his painting The Scream.  Matisse will always have The Dance. Van Gogh will be remembered most for Starry Night. Duchamp will be known for Fountain. These are their masterpieces.

Work must be seen and experienced. Art in a drawer never makes an impact. At some point in nearly every artist's career, they find their audience... those few or many who respond intensely to the work.

Upon being seen, the work is ultimately judged in two ways: by the audience itself and on a critical or academic level. Ideally, an artist will make work that garners positive attention from both, but it is not necessary. Beckett's work, for instance, has been critically celebrated by scholars, academics and theatre theorists for decades, but is it accessible in a popular sense? Arguably, no, not by a long shot. On the other hand, comic playwrights like Neil Simon, David Ives and Christopher Durang were hugely popular as audience favorites at their peaks in the 1980s, but have been considered lightweights by critics and theatre practitioners. Sadly, these three have fallen out of the fickle favor of popular taste in recent times as well.  

Hand in hand with an audience, artists of longevity found some sort of critical or peer-driven acceptance as well. Playwrights like Sarah Ruhl and Annie Baker are favorable of late, due to their hard work, luck and most chiefly nice positive critical response and peer acceptance. Every few years, the theatre community as a whole kind of makes an unwritten contract, an agreement to acknowledge several  individuals as having "arrived." This is not a promise of longevity or lasting importance, but is a step in that direction. At some point, the field kind of "accepts" an artist "into the fold." Even Shakespeare stopped being a struggling writer at some point and started performing for royalty.

This critical and colleague acceptance often comes from exposure through high profile theatres or festivals. Mike Daisey was doing okay with his monologues in Seattle in the late 1990s, but his performance of 21 DOG YEARS at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2001 really launched him as the national-touring act he is today. 

For fine artists it is important group shows or winning solo exhibitions. Basquiat was a street kid doing his rather obscure SAMO grafitti (tellingly, in the gallery neighborhood of Soho) until the Times Square Show group show in 1980. That along with a lengthy profile in Art Forum magazine are what really launched his career.
To conclude, the importance of a theatre artist (or any artist, really) is an impossible thing to gauge and notoriously difficult to predict. Some may remain consistently popular, like Moliere, while others reemerge after their oeuvre is re-appraised, such as Witkacy or Kleist. Whatever the case, the artists who continue to rank as most important always offer some combination of biographical intrigue, market desirability, institutional support, critical praise and a distinctive, visionary aesthetic.

Aug 8, 2013

SEEMING the reading

I'm in a staged reading of a new play by Matt Tomlanovich. 

Here's the synopsis:
Life just isn't how Preston saw it. In the course of a day the world shifts into uncharted seas for a retired appliance repairman addicted to right wing talk radio and meatloaf. A play of form and function concerning Heisenberg, Bohr and Schrödinger's cat.

Directed by Eric Devlin

Monday, August 12,2013 at 7 PM
The Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park
1121 First Avenue, Dallas TX 75210
P-W-Y-C at the door.

Aug 7, 2013

Anything Is Possible on Rodster the Jr. Chef

My young friend Rodster the Jr. Chef did me the honor of including my print Anything Is Possible in the newest episode of his web series "cooking" show. This episode tells us how to make "Party Punch." 

Check out his whole series... HERE.

Also, get your own print of Anything Is Possible (for as little as $15, with FREE SHIPPING until August 11)... HERE.

Aug 6, 2013

Robot vs Giant Dodo

Today, I had this idea for a small postcard-size artwork. I wanted it to have a robot either fighting or riding a giant dodo. I thought it would be fun to draw a dodo bird. Here's a look at the sketchbook study, the piece and then a glimpse of it hanging on my office wall.

[as usual, click on the images to see them larger]

Aug 5, 2013



Last April, the excellent folks at the Sundown Collaborative Theatre my plat CARTER STUBBS TAKES FLIGHT. They just sent me some great production pics.

[click on the image to see larger]

Aug 2, 2013

My Secret Island page 10

"Brad McEntire"
The little improvised comic, MY SECRET ISLAND, is coming along. It is a lot of fun and pretty low pressure since I only work on it every so often in my off moments. It is fun to see where it is taking me every time I hunker down to do another page.

You can see the whole comic to this point HERE or HERE.