“That’s Your Artistry!”

contactbutton(Note: This is a shorter post today, as it is the first day of school for my kids, and frankly I am wiped out. Still, I think it bears saying, and pondering, and sharing. At the very least, enjoy the video!)

Not many of my peers today know this, but I worked year round for the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre for my first five years out of college. I started as a stage management intern, earned my Actors’ Equity card, ended up taking over as Production Stage Manager when my boss moved on, and ran my own department and hired my own interns for several years after. While it may not have always felt like it at the time, I look back on my years there as the most challenging, fulfilling, and enjoyable of all my work experience. I learned a lot about working with artists while I was there. I learned to love Shakespeare, and more importantly, the English language. I met my wife there, and made many friends who I still keep vaguely in touch with.

But perhaps the most important realization I developed while I was working in professional theatre was this: It doesn’t matter how you get there, so long as you nailed it in the end.

Sure, lots of other things matter too. Did you do what you wanted without blowing the budget? Did anyone die along the way? Is the audience actually entertained, or did you just spent two hours prancing about for your own amusement? Are people working hard but still having a good time? Do you really need to light the floor up with so much glow tape that it looks like a landing strip? Is that vacuum set to suck or blow? Did you document everything the afore mentioned vacuum-er has screwed up, so that when she accuses you of beating her with a broom and locking her in a closet (That happened. The accusation, not the actuality of it.) you can show that she is simply insane and making crap up to try and keep her job? I digress. It was an odd place with odd people, at times, but it was all totally worth it.

But really, the point of any art, theatre or not, is whether you achieved your intended effect. Is that masterpiece made with cool-aid stains and crayons instead of high end oil pastels? So what! If it moves the audience, then it is good art, regardless of the path taken to get there.

You don’t always have to walk the proper and well established route to a solution—especially when that route doesn’t seem to be working! It is fine to abandon hours of work and start over at square one when the idea you were trying just doesn’t end up getting the results you need. In fact, it is probably much wiser to start over and learn from what did not work, than to continue with frustration simply because you do not want to give up on the time and money you have already invested. The secret here is to realize that spent resources are already spent. They have no intrinsic value. They either moved you forward or are holding you back. If it is the later, let it go.

You have to try new ideas. You have to seek creative solutions to challenges. You have to embrace your artistry and let your muse guide you. You have to get there, but how you get there is up for debate.

Jim Helsinger, the artistic director I worked for at the Shakespeare Theatre, would tell a particular story at least once a year, and sometimes more than that. Whenever a director or designer would want something awesome that nobody knew quite how to do; inevitably, someone would ask “Well, ok. That sounds cool. But how in the world do we do that?”

To which Jim would respond with his little tale about working for a man (in my mind it is a small Chinese man but this could just be my own fancy) who had this elaborate idea of beautiful swirling silks. At the top of the show, they would emerge from a tiny box in the center of the stage and slowly dance around the space. Billowing, twisting, turning, growing ever bigger and more amazing with each breath. Then the silks would all be sucked back into the box, the lid closed, and an actor would walk it offstage. And this man, when asked by his technical staff how in the world they were supposed to achieve his beautiful vision, had uttered a single phrase in response: “That’s your artistry.”

He didn’t know how to achieve the effect yet. He just knew that the effect needed to be achieved. And to do so meant that people would have to think, try new ideas, rely on their artistic foundation to find previously un-thought of solutions, and come up with something that would work. They had to be like those silks and get the heck out of their safe little boxes. They had to stretch, and soar, and simply be magical. The actual technique did not matter. The fans and wires and mirrors and lights and whatever, did not matter. The audience would not know the first thing about any of that. They would only see the artistry.

So I found this video by Daniel Wurtzel a few weeks ago, and it reminded me of that story that Jim would tell. I doubt this had anything to do with the production he was talking about (though perhaps, since this opens a Cirque show now), but it seemed very fitting all the same. It is mesmerizing, and beautiful, and I am pretty sure that it took more than one try, more than one discarded idea, to pull it off in the end.

This is his artistry. And it is awesome.

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