Slaves Of The System And Our Expectations

Well The Guardian beat me to it. I was going to do an entry rounding up the multitude of discussions about arts internships, but the Guardian got there first with many of the links I bookmarked for my entry as well as some I hadn’t. Still, it is probably a sign of a discussion that needs to be had when so many people start to participate. So I take some consolation in the fact the internet is doing its job and bringing us all together.

Read as many of the blog links included in the story as you can to get the fullest picture. One thing I think got lost in the discussion. While it is illegal for for-profit organizations to have unpaid internships, according to the NY Times article cited, they aren’t illegal for non-profits because they are allowed to have volunteer work staff.

Now, whether unpaid internships should be illegal is another question. Scott Walters makes a strong case about how internships and the systems that value them, favor the affluent who have the connections and family support to secure good prestigious internships. I was ready to say it wasn’t so except that he essentially describes my college career arc. I worked to pay my way through high school, college and grad school and slaved away for free in the theatre during those times I wasn’t working or studying. I would say the only benefit I had over the person in Scott’s story is that I had a family that valued education and so I knew enough about basic networking to position myself for a good internship—a paid one at that.

Compare that to the daughter of a colleague who goes to an Ivy League University and recently decided she might want to get into arts administration and got an internship at Lincoln Center. Granted, her parents told her to take advantage of every opportunity offered, do whatever she was asked and not to even think about going to parties instead so she could suck the marrow out of the experience. I really don’t know if I could have gotten that internship as easily even having grown up in NY and having been involved in the theatre for a fair bit of time, but not going to an Ivy.

I am not going to rail as vehemently against the system as Walters does. Saying the affluent gain more advantages than the poor seems as self-evident as saying the public transport system of big cities provide more advantages to their residents than those enjoyed by suburban residents. That isn’t to say that people shouldn’t work to change the situation if they see an opportunity to do so. I have a lot of respect for the effort Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin are putting in to this goal. They started a blog separate from their personal ones, Theatre Arts Curriculum Transformation in which they discuss the current situation and how it might be fixed.

I thought it was very timely on the day we opened a show in my theatre about celebrity, Tom Loughlin had an entry on the seductive quality of fame. While there is some misrepresentation about arts careers by training programs, there is a degree of self-delusion that hasn’t existed in the past. (my emphasis)

“The young person who wrote this email is a very nice and very engaging student. But he is not thinking rationally. He is a victim of what I have come to call the “fame factor” in theatre education. It exists not only in theatre, of course, but across the culture. Created almost entirely by the pervasiveness of mass media, young people no longer pursue success; they pursue fame as well. The writer of this email simply believes he will be famous someday and win the Academy Award, and he needs nothing but the simple fact of his belief in that idea to make it come true for him (except maybe a little more help from me with his acting, as if I could make such a difference – another illusion).

I think theatre educators do not take into account the power of this drive in young people.

[….big snip….]

As educators, we should begin to recognize the part that fame plays in the lives of our students. We should understand that they are growing up in a culture where fame is glorified, and that their motivations for studying theatre are not necessarily the same ones that those of us of a certain age had as theatre students. Do we have anything at all to counter this rush to fame? Can we offer them any options at all for careers more rooted in personal self-worth as determined by their own values? Can we educate them for careers in the arts where they can be rooted in communities of people driven by motives other than profit and notoriety? Sure we can, but we have to have the courage to be the kinds of educators no longer willing to send new victims to be sacrificed to the altar of our adoration. We have to find values other than fame in theatre for them, and sell those values more strongly and convincingly.”

I know that I keep talking about the Creative Economy which is supposed to be the next phase of mass employment. There aren’t many overt signs of this coming to pass in these dismal financial times, unless you count the creativity needed to create all those awful financial instruments that brought this all about. One of the things Tom talks about in this entry is the idea that training programs are responding to fill a perceived need for a very narrow segment of the arts. Perhaps if training programs began to teach students about the alternative ways to employ the skills they are using, it could contribute to the development of the creative economy.

At this point there doesn’t seem much risk to pursuing this course. Is it that much worse to train students for jobs that may not exist in the future or train them for jobs that will employ less than one percent of one percent of them? Instead of chasing the areas “they” say opportunities will be, training programs can drive the creation of those opportunities.

Reflections On Many Recent Arts Experiences

I know that my season is starting to wind down when I actually have time to get out and see other people’s performances. We who work in the arts are frequently told that if we want to stay at the peak of our powers, we should always being seeing things. When you are in the middle of your season, you tend to think that you see lots of performances because you are watching a lot of different things.

The problem is, the frame of mind you are in when you watch your own show isn’t the same as when you watch someone else’s. You are thinking about arrangements that still need to be made. You are noticing things the ushers should be doing better and trying to commit that list to memory so you can attend to it during a break. You are generally less free and open to the experience. Some times you just need to go somewhere else and have the experience free of this baggage so you can progress in your own skills and abilities.

Two Fridays ago I went to see a show that contained two pieces from a work being developed to premiere on our stage this coming October. It was a nice time and I chatted with some potential donors. Granted, it wasn’t entirely free of associations with work, but not paying for any part of the production or reception certainly frees the mind of some concerns. A sentiment that one of my colleagues from another arts organization also expressed to me.

This past Friday I went to the First Friday art walk to watch excerpts for the Celebrity Project show that is opening this coming weekend. We were trying to drum up interest in the show but also gauge what did and didn’t work. I sidling up to eavesdrop on people talking about the pieces. Pretty much all our spies overheard comments on the same issues and a revamp is in the works on a couple sections.

Saturday I went to see a Fijian group that had been brought in by the East-West Center arts program as part of the celebration of their 50th Anniversary. Before the show we were told that what we were about to see was the real deal and not something that had been altered to be more palatable for tourists.

This became apparent when the group finished their first song and then went up stage and sat down in a semi-circular huddle and continued to sing–backs turned to the audience–for another five minutes. The audience seemed mostly bemused to be ignored by the performers for that period.

During this, I had a quick cascade of thoughts:

-Hmm, maybe something like this would constitute a new approach to performances.

-No, wait, this is the opposite of the current thinking. Not only is it framed in the proscenium, it moves away from interactivity and getting the audience more invested in the performance. In fact, it is actually more alienating.

-Hey, isn’t that sort of synchronous? They are performing on platforms being built for a show by the father of alienation, Berthold Brecht. Hmm, now that I think about it, someone has probably already staged a show that makes no concessions to the needs of the audience at all, ignoring and alienating them.

-Actually, this sort of activity is probably very interactive and communal in Fiji which is why they are gathered together in a circle.  Since it isn’t designed to appease tourists, we are probably just in the wrong setting to experience it in the correct manner.

Anyway, after about five minutes the men got up and started dancing and the show went on from there. Different groups would get up to dance while those that finished moved back to the circle.

The singing never stopped continuing through the transitions between dancing groups. There would be a momentary pause as they shifted between songs. But the pauses were so brief that when combined with the split second tableaux the dancers would freeze into, the audience was generally uncertain when to clap.

I began to understand why attendees of classical music get so irked by applause at the wrong times. Breaks between movements are about 20 times longer than the minuscule pauses the Fijians took to pose and continue the same dance. Yet someone had to leap in and start clapping. By the third time I was muttering under my breath for people to wait a couple more beats by which time it would be clear if it was the end of the piece or just a designated pose point.

I have to give the Fijians a lot of props for their stamina and breath control. They sang continuously for 90 minutes without amplification. The only time a person didn’t sing was when they were dancing energetically around the stage. But then they sat back down and started singing again never appearing winded by their recent exertion.

The final interesting artistic encounter came today. The lobby of my building has a gorgeous 104′ x 23′ fresco mural by Jean Charlot. It is one of the last pieces he did before he died. Today his son came by to show the piece a muralist from Barcelona. I am very proud of the mural and I want to know everything I can about it so I brought my lunch to the lobby to see if I could learn anything new from Charlot’s son. There were some new revelations. Included were some fairly obvious motifs staring me right in the face I hadn’t recognized.

What I really appreciated was how passionately and eloquently the muralist from Barcelona spoke (either that or the translator was good at embellishing). He spoke of murals being the most primitive form of art dating back to cave walls. He talked about murals being the precursor of movies. He spoke of how in days when literacy was less widespread, murals told stories with sequences of images. However, unlike movies in which the sequence of event is set down by someone else, with a mural you can create your own story by choosing which image you will view next.

It occurred to me later that this activity is already in practice with people creating mash ups of other people’s work. As processing speeds increase in our various electronic devices, perhaps it will become even more prevalent. The problem today is that the person who created the original can become angry if people re-mix their work and share it with others. With a mural, the experience is much more personal within your own head or limited to whatever group you can gather around you to listen as you point out how you have re-imagined the sequence of events.

Dance Baby, Dance

While there has been increasing doubts raised about the benefits to intelligence and development from exposing children to Mozart and other classical music in the womb and as infants, a new study suggests that humans may be predisposed to dancing. In the experiments conducted, infants started moving spontaneously to the beat of different musical genres. (Beat rather than melody seemed to be most important.) The babies smiles more often when they were able to synchronize their movements with the music.

I guess the kids on American Bandstand instinctively knew what mattered when they declared a song had a great beat and they could dance to it.

This study just confirmed what I already suspected. Both my nephews jiggled and wiggled to music since before they could crawl and bounced and bopped around as soon as they could get to their feet. A friend’s son went to Chinese New Year celebration in February. While he was frightened by the Lion Dancers, he was apparently entranced by the dance itself because he kept watching YouTube videos. Then he would stand out on the porch and bounce up and down and simulate the drum beat with his voice. His father bought him a little lion costume and drum. Now whenever I am over, he grabs the costume and drum and does a dance for us. Actually, judging from the state of the poor costume, he dances more frequently than when I am around.

What I would really love is if someone does a study which finds out if kids who continue spontaneous dance type movements throughout their first five years end up with better coordination and lower body strength. Actually, I imagine there might be benefits to discerning spatial relationships and cognition as well that could be studied.

My ulterior motive is to motivate parents to no only have their kids listen to music, but also provide them freedom and encouragement to get up and move. I figure an environment that gives kids permission to even informally participate in another form of creative expression is good for the arts in the long run.

The Developing Audience Member

Over the last year, I have written about masterful performances that really affected me: the taiko performance a week ago, the kathak/tap dancing of Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith last year and Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer’s performance last September. There have been a couple times I have brought up the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to master your craft.

It occurred to me recently that if it takes that long to become a master, it likely takes a fairly significant fraction of that to develop appreciation and discernment of arts and culture. This isn’t something that really gets discussed enough I think. In fact, with all the studies that have done been, I don’t think anyone has ever studied how long it takes for a person to develop an understanding and appreciation for art. I am sure the subject has been studied tangentially in relation to learning and meta-cognition. But has anyone sat down and approached it head on how much time people need to process and internalize experiences?

What I am really getting at is the oft espoused idea that once someone is exposed to some form of art, they will fall in love with it forever after. The fact is, once may not be enough and it is pretty unfair and unrealistic that we expect it to be. We give performers hundreds and thousands of hours to gain proficiency and yet we expect our audiences to absorb just how sublime our work is after just two hours.

Yes, we have a need to have them fall in love quickly because the opportunities for exposure are so few and audience members becoming fewer. We are doing a disservice to our audiences to expect so much from them. We want them to realize what a great experience we are offering, but don’t really know how to guide them to that place and how long it might take.

If you are involved in the arts, then your discernment and appreciation were probably developing roughly in parallel with your mastery of whatever you were pursuing. Even if you stopped, your critical skills may have continued to improve as you processed new experiences through the filter of your knowledge. You likely did not notice it happening and so assume you always had pretty good aesthetic sense. But I bet you can look back and grimace at all the crap you used to like and produce–some of it was probably pretentious crap too. (Of course, it was still better by half than the stuff kids are listening to today!)

So the more I think about it, the more I believe that becoming the audience member we all want is as gradual a process as becoming the master we want them to applaud. As I referenced producing awful stuff when we were younger in the preceding paragraph, I was envisioning my dismal acting skills in college vs. what, in my foolishness, I perceived my acting skills to be. One of the things I clearly remember from that time was a friend telling me he was really getting into Indian raga. I immediately laughed because it seemed absurd to me that anyone who wasn’t of that culture would listen to raga, (I think that was my classic rock phase), and I suspected he was saying that to get women. But he said he was serious.

But today I have cited the excellence of three events, two of which were heavily infused with Indian music and instruments and the last that included taiko drumming. At the time I was making fun of my friend about ragas, I had no concept taiko existed. Now I am encouraging people to see these performances and it is difficult to imagine people not enjoying them.

So while we don’t know how long it make take to bring someone into a receptive outlook about the arts, what we do know is that Generation X is not experiencing the upward bump in classical music attendance as they move into their 40s as previous generations did. Alex Ross doesn’t think it is too late to reverse that trend by increasing exposure through a lot of hard work.

I will openly admit that at this juncture, my thoughts on this matter are completely at a preliminary stage. This idea is only a day and a half old in my mind. But as I think about it, it seems to me that people don’t necessarily need direct experience in a situation to gradually develop the ability to confidently approach it. You may not necessarily need constant exposure to classical music and sculpture to acquire critical evaluation skills in these areas.

This winter I went to a number of contemporary art museums and I think that I gained the confidence to do so from having built and lit sets for the theatre. Even though I haven’t done so for awhile, all the times I have watched a show and evaluated these elements since then has improved my ability to recognize how certain effects have been accomplished. That in turn gave me the confidence to walk into an art museum and understand a great deal about what I was looking at. Granted, it might not be what the artist and the critics intend me to understand and perhaps that will come later. For now I am deriving enjoyment when I visit.

I had a similar experience with sumo wrestling. I really don’t watch a lot of sports at all. I have seen a little baseball, football, hockey, soccer, wrestling and martial arts in my time. I went to a sumo event a few years ago knowing nothing and was soon enjoying myself. I think the little bits of experience from these other sports provided a context for the sumo bouts. Though admittedly, sumo is pretty easy to understand. None of my past sports experience is likely to be much help with cricket.

I will concede there is a great theatricality in the sumo ritual and my experience in that area probably helped as well. I have tried to watch bouts online since and find those videos which edit out a lot of the ritual unsatisfying.

Anyway, my point is– the skills/tools/abilities needed to appreciate an arts experience isn’t necessarily cultivated solely by exposure to the arts. While one exposure may not be enough, devising a way to nail people’s feet to the floor en masse so they can’t leave won’t be necessary either. There are myriad situations which are improving people’s capacity to understand and enjoy occurring all the time. The trick is to identify these situations and make people aware of the connections. I felt confident walking into a museum because I knew my comprehension of the use of light and shadow in a performance could translate to visual art because I was aware of their use in that discipline.

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