The Originality That Is Sought Is Not The True Originality

h/t to Artsjournal.com (I believe) which linked to an article about creativity from the Chinese perspective, or at least perspective of the philosopher(s) known as Zhuangzi.

This is a view that resonates with the sentiment, much hated by some arts students, that you need to master the fundamentals before you can diverge from them.    The author of the article, Julianne Chung, cites one of the many parables/stories that comprise the works attributed to Zhuangzi, (you may know the famous “Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a man.“), in which a wheelwright speaks about true mastery and understanding is earned through long, patience and experience and thus books only contain the “chaff and dregs” of true knowledge.

Chung’s discussion of this view leans toward the “99% perspiration, 1% inspiration” approach to creativity. While this may sound like a endorsement of learning by rote repetition, it is clear that observation and reflection are important components of this process.

Of course, being a Daoist philosopher, one of Zhuangzi’s underlying ideas is the true Way can not be actively sought and Chung reflects that in her commentary:

…de-emphasising originality might ironically result in greater creativity. This is because striving for originality can actually be counterproductive when it comes to achieving genuinely fresh results: if we focus on the task of achieving something original, we’ll explore only the range of possibilities deemed sufficiently likely to yield that result, leaving out a lot that could have contributed to achieving something original.

But imagine instead that we worked with the idea that creativity wasn’t about novelty. That doesn’t mean we’d have to give up the value of originality entirely, but rather see it as one of a range of possible outcomes. Casting a wider net in this way might hence make creativity (whatever it involves) easier to achieve.

[…]

This alternative perspective on creativity might help us to see it as an everyday phenomenon in which we all participate – rather than an extraordinary talent or gift that only a few enjoy. And it might also allow us to make sense of the idea of living creatively: of an integrated life, lived spontaneously, in which all of life’s contrasting aspects can be arranged to form a rich and variegated whole.

The concept that an original product is one of many possible outcomes seems to be a more constructive approach than always striving for novelty and viewing anything that is not as lesser.

Long time readers will likely recognize that the suggestion embracing this perspective may help a broader range of people view creativity as something everyone has the capacity to participate in is very appealing to me.

Merit Can Be More Easily Inherited Than Earned

There was an article on San Francisco Classical Voice website on September 1 about racism in classical music titled “The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle Against Systemic Racism in Classical Music.” The last water fountain phrase was coined by Lee Pringle, founder and artistic director of the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, SC.

The narrative of the article orbits around Pringle and includes numerous anecdotes about the direct racist experiences different Black artists and professionals have experienced throughout their careers as well as ways in which the general framework of the classical music industry inhibits their careers. (e.g. don’t get offered many opportunities, but union membership prevents participation in non-union events organized to amplify the talents of musicians of color.)

There were many aspects of the article that grabbed my attention, but a statement made by the articles author, Robert Macnamara, early on really illustrated how the concept of meritocracy resulting in the best ensemble is undermined by the lack of access many Black musicians in particular have to “farm system” that begins to channel musicians on a career path at a young age.

In the system, support is assumed, and when the question arises, the answer is predetermined: “Oh honey, $1,800 seems like an awful lot of money for an oboe, but I guess, if you really want this, we can always find the money somewhere.”

And so begins the march; the route is fixed. White people and some ethnic groups follow a progression of youth orchestras and schools of the arts and then are often paired with principal musicians in local professional orchestras. Meanwhile, young Black musicians inevitably draw attention to their raw talent but can’t afford the coaching and mentoring to help develop technical expertise and to help direct the way through the audition maze. Having little or no experience in a youth orchestra, they arrive in college music departments with, as one musician put it, “a lot of heart and personality but may not catch every note.”

The effect of this closed system is that it’s pervasive, ingrained, and needlessly exclusive, a monoculture that white audiences often don’t know much about or, frankly, seem to care much about.

I have posted about this before in regard to internships. Studies have shown that internships tend to be valuable when it comes to getting a first job and establishing a career. However, those who benefit most from internships are those whose families support them financially and reinforce their choices through their expectations.

This idea that meritocracy isn’t the value neutral measure we think it is has been around for a few years, but in the last few months, and apparently few days as I searched for links to articles I recalled reading, it has come to the fore again and is something to consider as we examine the composition of our organizations their relationships to those being served.

Cirque Got Back In The Air In China

Many have probably heard about the Broadway productions in South Korea which only experienced a brief shutdown thanks to the swift and fairly comprehensive measures the government and productions put in place to combat Covid-19. Come to find out, there is a Cirque du Soleil production in Hangzhou, China which managed to get back into production in May despite China being an early epicenter of the disease. The China show didn’t start performing again until July, however.  It was one of two Cirque productions performing at the time of the article was written. (I am not sure what the other production is. I see Mystere is running in Vegas, but the other Vegas productions don’t start until October.)

During the shutdown period, many of acrobats cobbled together practice routines to maintain their strength and flexibility since their normal training faculties were unavailable. One of the biggest challenges the production faced was that many of their foreign performers had left the country and couldn’t re-enter in order to rejoin the show.  They ended up having to basically revamp the performances and supporting technology to integrate all the changes into the overarching narrative concept.

Over a manic three-week period, “X” hired over a dozen replacement actors and acrobats from troupes across China, who had to be trained and taught the show in its entirety.

Scenes containing foreign stars were replaced and re-choreographed. A duo of figure-skating Russians was swapped out for a group of Cyr wheel performers, who roll around the stage inside giant metal hoops. The high-flying bungee rope artists were substituted for a “water meteor” juggling act. Local trampoline specialists created a simplified version of the show’s original “trampowall” segment, in which the experienced foreign artists would flip and spin off of a high vertical wall.

Changing or cutting acts is routine during Cirque shows, but making so many changes while remaining faithful to the “X” storyline was a huge challenge, according to Chouinard.

[…]

The hardest-working crewmembers were the technical team, who had to adjust the music, graphics, lighting, and animations to fit with the altered show. Each change, meanwhile, had to be discussed and approved by Cirque’s headquarters back in Canada.

What was most surprising to learn was that the Chinese producers, Xintiandi,  were able to continue paying the bills for their idled production even as Cirque du Soleil was filing for bankruptcy protection. Still, despite Xintiandi’s substantial cash reserves, they have been renting out their performance facility to other events in an attempt to offset the reduced income resulting from a mandatory 50% seating capacity and weakened tourism outlook for Hangzhou.

Between February and June, Xintiandi continued to pay staff wages, venue bills, financial payments, and maintenance costs, without earning 1 yuan in income.

The Chinese firm, meanwhile, still has to pay Cirque an annual licensing fee for the show. When Sixth Tone spoke with Xia in July, she said the company was currently negotiating this year’s payment with its Canadian partner, with a slight grimace.

The deep pockets of Xintiandi have enabled the show to absorb these losses, but the current 50% attendance limit means the show can’t run profitably.

Live From Our Fire Escape

Today Drew McManus had a post on Adaptistration titled “In the Age Of COVID, Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention.” This was pretty timely because I had my own tale of adapting to the times to tell.

This weekend at my venue, we hosted our first live event since March -an outdoor cabaret performance on our fire escape. (Not so much an invention, I suppose since the first thing people did when the pandemic started was sing from their apartment windows and fire escapes.)

As you can see from the pictures below, we have a pretty substantial fire escape with multiple levels that can be used for performance. Since this was our first time out and we didn’t want to expose more of our equipment to the summer heat and possible rain than necessary, we limited our activities to one level.

The audience sat in our parking lot. As you can see, we prepped the parking lot by chalking out seating pods. The seating was general admission and we undersold what we imagined our capacity to be in order to provide both our audience and ourselves with the flexibility to see how things developed.

We determined the size and number of pods to create by analyzing the ticket purchasing patterns. We drew out two person, four person, six person and in one case 10 person, pods based on how people purchased their tickets. The pods were spaced to allow six feet between groups of unrelated people. Then we allowed enough room on the perimeter for people who felt the need for greater distancing to set up as they wanted.

Our aim was to observe how many people chose the pods versus the open areas in order to get a sense of what our actual capacity for the space might be while ensuring good sightlines. We capped the event at 175 people, but now figure we can get up to about 250 and still ensure appropriate spacing and flexibility in seating location.

Our local mask ordinance requires that if you are anywhere outside your home within six feet of a person with whom you do not live, you must wear a mask. The example given is if you are waiting at a crosswalk alone, you don’t have to wear a mask, but if someone arrives to wait with you, you need to be wearing one.

Since people were coming with picnic set-ups or could grab food from partner restaurants and didn’t have to wear a mask while eating, our policy was you could only sit with people in your household and could remove your mask while seated in your pod with them. Since moving to and from that space requires becoming closer to others, you needed to wear a mask as you moved about everywhere else. By and large everyone heeded the rule and those that didn’t we firmly prodded to comply.

One bit of fortunate timing was about three weeks ago the local government expanded permission to have open containers on downtown streets from First Friday only to every night between 4 pm-10 pm to allow bar patrons to use sidewalk tables restaurants and the downtown association had deployed. This allowed us to serve alcohol out of our own bar which helped improve the financial situation of the event.

Overall, it was regarded as a success and we are planning to run at least one more before it gets too cool this Fall. Stay tuned.

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