Saturday, January 29, 2011

Devised Work

A few thoughts while I struggle through my cold. Isaac asks some questions about Devised Work, and since I am primarily someone who works in the realm of "Devised Work" I'll put forward my personal answers.

Firstly, before I approach his answers, this is what I mean by "Devised Work", although I hate the term because I think it's somewhat a misnomer.

When I work with my company on a devised work, we work as such:
  • Each person works for a bit on some small moment or piece of work which they then share with the rest of the working group.
  • The company responds, and we add it to a list of available moments.
Later, we synthesize these related moments and figure out what the arc and the through-line is.

It's just a different drafting process - drafting in performance. It comes with its own weaknesses, which Isaac notes -- feeling more scattershot, feeling more uneven, etc. Those are just the working hazards, in the same way that the "traditional" writing process (another term I'm not wild about) has the danger of being too talky, of being just the playwright's voice in various heads.

I don't work in this mode because I want to "get rid of" playwrights or directors -- my devised work usually has someone in those positions. But I've noticed that when I write a play at my desk, I'm writing dialogue -- and I create a dialogue focused play. When I draft practically, in a room with performers, I get the opportunity to create a different type of work.

It also helps me draft with the ideas of plenty of people. A long time ago I realized I'm not perfect, and I don't have perfect visions of my own work in my head, and I need help from other people to create full pieces. I'm not being facetious, I've worked with directors who walk into a process knowing what they want to create from beginning to end, and they Direct the show until they have what they want. When I work, I create things in the moment, to solve problems and deliver on impulses.

Note that devised work is a different drafting process; one that requires rehearsal space and other resources. A lot of devised work companies make the mistake of conflating the drafting process with the production process; they don't leave time between the creating of something and the process of making it good -- the editing and finessing process. That, I think, is what causes Isaac to wish that the "director" or the "playwright/editor" had been more present.

To me, it would be perfectly plausible to use a devised work process to create a first "script", and then to put a traditional-style director in charge of it and say, "make this good." In the traditional-style directing process, as it was communicated to me, the director and the cast operate in a mode of trying to bring a particular intention to life in the most sharply defined way possible. No reason why you can't do that with a work that has been created in an ensemble-derived environment.

To me, a bad devised work is about equivalent to a bad playwright-written play, they just tend to have different weaknesses.
First off, do audiences care about how a play is created? Should they?
Audiences don't care how the work is made on an aesthetic level. They care about the product. However, I do think that the way that work is made has an effect on the final work. Work that is "devised" may tend to create a certain kind of product -- and it's important to select the drafting process that fits the aesthetic of the final product.

Second, what about devised work that eventually is crafted by playwrights, directors and actors in a more traditional structure? The Civilians, The Debate Society and Young Jean Lee's company all use devising processes, but the shows they produce are written, directed and acted by people in fixed roles (even if those roles overlap). Are they still devised work?

I have always thought of these companies as devised work companies. I think they use devised work processes to draft their work, and then they have a more structured and formal process for editing and creating a final product. Which is good -- that's what the should be doing, and it's why their work tends to be solid while still having the distinct flavor of devised work.

Are they devised work once actors other than the original development company take over roles? What about when other companies license the scripts and do the shows?

Well, doing a revival is always a distinct process from a new-works process in my mind. So the original play can still be described as a "devised work," but the new production is not devised; the original company devised it.

The obvious example here is the Laramie Project. It was devised (by the very man who taught me how to do devised work, as a matter of fact), but now it is performed the way straight plays are performed the world over. Invariably, when it is performed, the story of how The Laramie Project was put together is part of the show -- and in that sense, you are describing it as a devised work. But it's pretty clear that it wasn't devised by your local high school cast.

National Arts Index

Some good numbers in the National Arts Index (via Artful Manager):
  • The percentage of college-bound seniors with four years of arts or music has grown, despite wide complaints of the loss of public arts education.
  • College arts degrees conferred have continued to rise (partly because of an increase in design degrees, and the growth of double majors that include the arts).
  • The number of Americans who personally participated in an artistic activity (making art themselves) is also on the rise, up five percent between 2005 and 2009.
  • The number of nonprofit arts organizations and arts businesses also rose, despite the poor economy. According to the study, between 2003 and 2009, a new nonprofit arts organization was created every three hours in the U.S.
I'm not surprised that nonprofit arts organizations are on the rise -- after all, if people aren't making any profits anyways, why not make a gamble on a nonprofit arts organization?

Anyways, most of it appears to be the usual gloom and doom, but it's nice to know that in a decade or so, we might have a culture that's more arts-infused than we are today.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Percival's Big Night!

Courtesy Robyn Ng.

This is where I've been lately. At the AMAZINGNESS that is Percival's Big Night!

  • It's a hysterical play and a rollicking good night out.
  • Our drinks specials, which you can order during the show.
  • You can play NBA Jam on our Sega Genesis afterwards.
  • This amazing trailer:

Percival's Big Night from organsofstate on Vimeo.

Oh, and guess what -- if you donate $25 dollars, you get a free ticket and a free drink!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Art Solution: Peer Reviewed Journal

[U]nlike in health care or the pharmaceutical industry, in the arts we’re (usually) not dealing with life and death. It’s okay if we make a mistake once in a while; the world will continue on. So we don’t need to have 99.9% or even 95% certainty that the choices we make are the right ones before we move ahead. Indeed, as of now it’s likely that we make some decisions with virtually no certainty of their wisdom at all! To the extent that research can play a role in reducing the uncertainty we face in making decisions within a strategic framework, that research can provide real, quantifiable value to its users.
Let me elaborate on that last point. One of the most powerful tools I learned in business school was decision analysis, a conceptual approach useful for incorporating uncertainties into scenario planning. A common concept in decision analysis is what’s known as “the value of perfect information.” You know you have perfect information when there is absolutely no uncertainty in the outcomes that might result from an action or set of actions you take. The value of perfect information is the difference in your “expected value” (i.e., the result of the best possible strategy given the average of all possible outcomes, weighted by probability) with certainty and without. For example, if you’re only 60% sure that taking the test prep class will get you to the GRE score you need, there’s a 40% chance the amount you spend on the class will be a waste. In the language of decision analysis, that’s equivalent to saying that you can “expect” to lose 40% of your investment. With perfect information that taking the class will lead to the result you want, you have no risk of wasting that money. Thus, the value of perfect information in this case is 40% of the price of the class.

Research, especially research in the arts, can’t give us perfect information. But it can sure as hell give us better information than we already have. Even if it can reduce our uncertainty that our strategy is the right one from 40% to, say, 20%, that’s still quite a boost to our confidence. But the value of research is only as high as its quality. Badly designed or poorly executed studies can be next to useless in reducing uncertainty, or worse, can actually increase it by confusing the underlying issues.
That's it. It's a succinct, mathematical approach to why, even though we can't say anything absolutely, we can still talk about verifiable truth about the arts.

Ian says, next:
Unfortunately, no certification body currently exists to ensure the research conducted in the arts is of a sufficient quality to be helpful.
Forget certification body, what about a peer-reviewed journal? If there was an Art the way there is a Nature or a Lancet... what an incredible public service that would be to the arts!

What would it take, Ian?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Day

Remember, today is not chiefly about Martin Luther King Jr. the man. Today is about the work that he stood for, work that is still ongoing.

Notes on their way from The New Black Fest's opening panel, which I attended tonight.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Percival's Big Night

Every once in a while I stop myself and ask, why would any of my blog readers listen to a word I have to say?

Well, one way for you all to figure out who I am and what I do is to come see one of the shows I produce.

True to form, here's a trailer for our latest concoction:

Excited? Amped?
And let me know when you show up that you're a blog reader!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Certified John Cage Classic

Okay, weirdly, this may be the first time that Sarah Palin has returned to being a person for me since her disastrous interview with Katie Couric. It's something about her eyes that makes me wonder if there isn't a small part of her that's afraid of what she has gotten into.

Anyways, no more pop psychology for me.

Shorter Jonathan Lethem

I mean seriously, he's complaining about pedantry on Wikipedia. Which is an encyclopedia. What, I ask you, is the point of an Encyclopedia if it isn't pedantry? After all, pedantry is (according to Wikipedia):
a person who is overly concerned with formalism and precision, or who makes a show of their learning.
Yes! Wikipedia is not The Next Great American Novel, it's an encyclopedia. At times poorly written, at times with strange emphases, but it's a damn encyclopedia.

It's like complaining that your medical textbook isn't friendly enough. It's not supposed to be friendly. It's a medical textbook.

Hero Watch: Daniel Hernandez

"The real heroes are the people who have dedicated their lives to public service."
-- Daniel Hernandez, an intern to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who rushed to her aid in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's shootings in Arizona.

Via Fedblog.

My one New Year's Resolution is that this will be the year of Sanity. I have some thoughts about the Giffords shooting, Sarah Palin, and the role of rhetoric -- since it is pertinent to culture, and also (surprisingly) pertinent to my thesis, but I am waiting until I have a significant block of time to write them so that I can give those thoughts the weight that this requires.

[74 year-old retired Army colonel Bill] Badger said he got the shooter in a choke hold while another man forced his knee into the suspect's neck.

This guy didn't even realize he'd been shot in the fucking head. He just sprang right into action, bleeding all over the damn place, and kicking ass like a man half his age. If that ain't some real-life Gran Torino-type shit, we don't know what is.
Two men tackled the gunman and they fell close to [61-year-old Patricia] Maisch. She saw the shooter reach into his left pants pocket for another ammunition clip and grabbed his hand and then knelt on his ankles to help subdue him.

Stressful situations often come down to fight-or-flight responses. No one would be blamed for choosing flight. These people stepped up, and probably saved many more lives with their quick actions.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Map of Dialects

Yo actors, follow this link to get an incredibly detailed map of North American accents.

Where Art Is Still Vital...

... Belarus, where they're still important enough to jail (as the Guardian illustrates):

The situation in Europe's last dictatorship continues. It's a little window into the past, where the rules of Soviet Union continue to apply. Thankfully they're still able to continue to create work, and unfortunately it is very difficult for them to share it with their own people.

Top Arts News Stories of 2010

A list which I have not compiled, but which Ian Moss has here. RTWT.

I'm sort of recovering from having been away, and also recovering from stepping straight back into a show which opens in two weeks. I promise that there are big things in the works and I will start posting soon, as soon as I work my way through a big hefty backlog of things.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Are We What's Wrong with the Arts?

As he left and the lights dimmed, the biggest question still looming in my mind was do we really need this? We have the movies, a still-in-print comic, shows, video games, etc. … is a Broadway musical necessary for me to see?

About thirty minutes later, Spider-Man was swinging over the audience’s heads, having a chicken fight with the Green Goblin, punching and throwing each other in the air. Suddenly Spider-Man flew down to the ground and landed with a thud 3 feet away from where I was sitting. He tapped a guy on the shoulder and asked if he had any change, then shot back up into the air and jumped on TOP of the flying Green Goblin. And my question was answered, yes this is completely necessary.

A reviewer on Ain't It Cool News, about Turn Off The Dark.

My father this break chastised me a little for being into "experimental theater" and being part of a group that turns our nose up at the "main-stream" things that are popular... well, because people like it.

I read Isaac's great interrogation of the piece... aw heck, let's quote a bit:
Incoherence suffuses the show like a virus on all levels. The different design elements don’t go together. The web of the story is too overburdened to ever weave itself into basic sense, let alone the kind of delight we expect from this sort of thing. And, despite spending slightly more than the annual budget of the Falkland Islands on the show, no one involved seems to have been watching out for the basics of three-dimensional storytelling on stage. This is how you end up with someone singing “Rise Above,” while (via expensive flying and hydraulics) everything sinks.
Now obviously, I don't actually think that the question posed in the subject line should be answered with "Yes." Connoisseurs are people fighting to increase the quality of the theatrical work. But when I see such a huge gulf between what theater people think is good theater and what the rest of the world considers to be good theater, I sit and pause.

Also: Spider-man sounds awful and I still would never see it.

Anyways, I just got off a flight where I spent the entirety watching the coverage of today's horrific events, so I'm not ready to follow through on these thoughts. I'll come back to it when I have a bit more coherence on the subject.'

(UPDATE: As usually happens when I see an article of mine referenced by the Guardian, I would like to clarify a little: I don't, actually, disagree with Isaac's assessment of the show -- I really can't because I haven't (and won't) seen the show. And I don't disagree with where his criticism is coming from -- it's studied, intelligent, and based on not just esoteric but practical concerns.

I don't know what to do with the fact that Isaac is right, but nobody seems to care. I draw a very distinct line between things which are popular and not necessarily high brow, but are still well done (I think the ouevre of Andy Samberg on SNL qualifies), and things which are really badly done but which people still like.

In politics, this is the bafflement I feel when I see people cheering Sarah Palin. I can understand people disagreeing with me (I have respect for a conservative like David Cameron, or George H.W. Bush). But I can't understand badly done conservatism. When Sarah Palin gets in front of a camera, uses the word "Blood Libel" in a sense that just doesn't work, logically, and simultaneously holds the positions that words don't incite violence and words do incite violence simultaneously, I don't know what to make of her supporters.

It's the same here. I really have no problem with silly entertainment or unambitious/experimental work. I just don't know what to do when on the one hand you have someone saying "This is a very poorly designed piece of work" -- and is right -- and our purported audience is saying "my god this is the reason we invented theater".)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Big Projects to Watch 2011

Hey! It's 2011 and our fellow blogosphere denizens are putting big plans in motion -- and I'm going to tell you about them!

First up, RVCBard:
The second thing I'm working on is a Black womanist liberation poetics (or rather poiesis). If I'm honest with myself, this is more than likely a lifelong endeavor, but at the very least I'd like to make significant headway on the guiding principles. [...] The main idea is to start from one's own lived experience as the center then work outward from there.

I also want to avoid any dogmatic assertions about What Great Theatre Should Be and focus instead on what works and how.
Hooray! That last part was the part that made me really excited, because for the last year and a half I've been working on a theory of theories, basically built around that last clause: focusing on what works and how. But looking very specifically at what is or isn't effective in the realm of Black womanist liberation is, well, something completely outside my realm of background. So I'm eager to listen and learn.

Back when I talked about the inaugural New Black Fest, I noted the low attendance from non-minority theatre-makers. Immediately, the pushback came: "We didn't know about it! How could we come without an invitation?!? What are we, mind-readers?"

Horse Trade Theater Group (Erez Ziv, Managing Director, Heidi Grumelot, Artistic Director) will present THE FIRE THIS TIME FESTIVAL, a platform for talented early-career playwrights of African-American descent to explore new voices, styles and challenging new directions for 21st century performing arts, and move beyond common ideas of what is possible in "black theater."
Oh man, I so very much hope my calendar will allow for this to happen for me personally, but if not -- GO IN MY STEAD!

And lastly, Createquity:, a blog and unique virtual think tank promoting next-generation ideas about the role of the arts in a creative society, is seeking talented arts policy writers and researchers for the inaugural Createquity Writing Fellowship.


Createquity Writing Fellows will hold the position for one semester (spring 2011), at the successful conclusion of which they will be welcome to continue writing for the site on an ad hoc basis. Fellows are expected to write two to three larger pieces and approximately two to five smaller pieces* during the course of their term. One of the larger pieces must be a write-up for the Arts Policy Library, a project that synthesizes important arts publications (research studies, books, etc.) for a lay audience.

Of all of the wonderful things that have happened to this blog, Ian Moss has been the greatest. Since we found each other on Twitter, and he first drove some traffic towards my site.

At the point when Ian Moss read my blog, I really felt I was just writing for nobody on this blog. There was nobody here, but I kept writing because I just wanted a space to develop my writing.

Then, having brought me into the conversation, where I've gotten to bandy words with all the other bloggers out there, he extended to me the chance to write an Arts Policy Library article for him. I leapt at the chance, and I'm happy I did.

The two pieces (one on The Search for Shining Eyes and one on Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement) are some of the finest pieces of writing that has my name on it. And for a large part, that's because of Ian's stringent eye as an editor.

To write at length, to have good and incisive feedback, and to have your trains of thought questioned during an editing process is not a luxury you get when blogging. Nor, for many young arts leaders, is it something available to them at work. Createquity is a space for that. I urge you to take advantage of it.

(And Ian -- I still have my notes for the third one I was writing... man I hope my life clears up a little so I can do more!)

There! Those are the big projects!

Unless you've got more I haven't spotted... I'd love to hear!