Reflections On Experiencing And Expressing Insight

This weekend we hosted a performance by the dance company Diavolo.  You may be familiar with them as a finalist on America’s Got Talent, but they have been around since 1993 and have been on my radar since the early 2000s. They have been on my wishlist of groups to present for nearly two decades so I was happy to have the opportunity to do so this weekend.

They bill themselves as “Diavolo: Architecture in Motion” because they utilize some pretty significantly sized objects as part of their performance. I have included their sizzle reel below so you can get a sense of what that means.

I wouldn’t consider myself a dance person really at all. When I was watching the performance, I started thinking that they, moreso than any other dance or cirque type company I had seen, really honored the size, mass and shape of the objects with which they were working.

Instead of deciding what they wanted to do and then building an apparatus to make it happen, I felt like they started with the object as a partner and then created their work, acknowledged the fact the item blocked our sight at different times to hide and reveal things. I had the sense they were following the existing weight and motion of the objects rather than making the objects serve their purpose.

Almost immediately, I questioned whether it was really true they were among a few focused on synchronizing with the objects and honoring their physical properties to create dance vs. bending objects to their needs. I suspected they weren’t the only dance company that started from the physicality of the object and created from there. I figured it was likely I had seen it happen a dozen times before and had finally accumulated enough experience that I recognized what was happening.

I want to resist a simplistic explanation of experience and exposure. Research is showing that people are not “aging into” an appreciation of classical music. I don’t want to credit what I was recognizing this weekend as simply aging into an appreciation of dance.

I am okay with a complicated explanation of experience and exposure. I just resist an explanation that implies a sense of inevitability.

A month ago as I was traveling to a conference, I realized I was making little stutter steps getting on and off of escalators and moving sidewalks even though I have a lifetime of experience with these mechanisms. I was thinking about that Saturday night when one of the dancers sat lightly down on the huge rocking semi-circle and traveled upward without disturbing its motion or evincing any difficulty or hesitation dealing with the change of inertia.

The fact drawing a connection between mounting airport escalators and hopping on oversized playground equipment was a necessary element in my enlightenment this weekend indicates that the factors involved in growing an appreciation of a creative discipline are numerous and complex.

I also quickly recognized that “honoring the size, mass and shape of the objects,” was exactly the dense terminology that turns people new an experience off of it. (I swear, I was paying close attention to the performance. I am capable of simultaneously processing epiphanies and sitting in rapt attention.)

The “honoring…” phrase was legitimately the way I encapsulated what I was experience for myself in the moment but it definitely sounds like something someone would say to make themselves sound authoritative and perhaps stifle contrary views.

Basically what I am trying to say is there is nothing wrong with finding that dense, sophisticated terminology is necessary to distill the fullness of your experience for yourself.  Just realize the weight of those words may feel like a bludgeon to those who hear them. Diluting your impressions with broader, simpler context is probably necessary for people to understand your experience.

I think the issue is that many of us in the arts aren’t very practiced in employing the broader, simpler context familiar to our wider community.

 

Maps Upon Maps, Soon Useful Data Appears

As part of developing the cultural masterplan for our community, people are being encouraged to contribute information to a cultural resource map. The goal is to not only map the active assets in the community, but the potential ones as well.

I have written about this aspect of crowdmapping before. You don’t only notate theatres, art galleries, murals, dance schools, historical markers, etc but shuttered movie houses, former community centers and places where things potentially might occur.

A beautiful fountain in the center of town? Good place for an impromptu concert. Empty lot overgrown with weeds? Our next community garden or maybe a pop-up sculpture park. Blank walls of an abandoned building? We see murals in our future.

In my post two years ago, I used an example which talked about using paper and colored stickers, but as you might imagine there are apps available for this sort of thing as well.

The executive director of the local arts alliance is taking classes in GIS mapping. The goal is to integrate the cultural asset maps with an overlay of every bit of data the county collects and maps. Not only will we (and local government officials) be able to see which neighborhoods lack cultural assets, we will be able to see where public transportation does and doesn’t run thereby limiting access to assets around the county. Likewise, they can cross reference things like frequency of events with trashcan placement in order to better deploy waste disposal.

There is already an app for reporting problems like potholes, broken streetlights, erosion to the county so there are likely to be all sorts of interesting correlations that emerge over time as more data gets added.

There is potential for all sorts of different analysis, including planning and zoning of hotels, housing, supermarkets, parking meters and the like. I think most people are excited by the idea that they will be able to cross reference data they haven’t even anticipated needing yet.

Here is the form we in Macon, GA are using to collect data. The mapping is still in its earliest stages so very few assets have been added yet. (I plead guilty to not doing my part.) There is a plan to cross reference this map with organizations , buildings, historical markers, etc already listed in different databases in order to populate the map with the lower hanging fruit.

Even if you don’t have access to map overlays, the simple paper and sticker process can be an important step toward a constructive conversation. As I noted in my post from a couple years ago, the process

… can go a long way toward solving the problem of involving people who are most impacted by decisions but may not show up to formal meetings. People who don’t feel like they are represented or have their voices heard can gain a measure of confidence that their contributions matter when they are made responsible for imagining/suggesting what a neighborhood might become.

This can especially be true for online submission tools. If you enter the hidden gem attraction at the end of your cul-de-sac and see it appear on the map a couple days later, you can gain the sense that you can contribute in a way that makes a visible difference. There is also an ability to bring recognition to often overlooked information preserved in a neighborhood, but not widely known in the community.  The grave marker of a civil rights advocate at the edge of what is now a cornfield, for example.

Though obviously, this only works if the serving as gatekeepers of the maps are prompt in approving the additions and responsive to the needs of the participants. I’m sure I am not the only one that had to jump through hoops to get Google Maps to correctly reflect closed streets and a change to one way traffic flow.

This Is Not The Show I Auditioned For. How The Heck Did I Get Here?

So if it isn’t bad enough that actors auditioning for a part are being evaluated on the social media following they have cultivated along with their looks and talent, they are now being asked to record and submit their own auditions.

Actor Melissa Errico wrote a piece for the New York Times about how possessing home recording studio and the requisite mastery to use it (or a friend with the aforementioned space, equipment and skills) is now increasingly required to audition for the stage.

The self-tape is the latest torturous incarnation of the ancient abusive art of the audition, the primal act of our craft. And the rules of engagement, even in suburban basements, are formal and strict:

You are expected to perform your lines in good lighting, framed horizontally, in medium close-up, with a microphone.

You are often asked to produce two extra pieces of audition material, the first, a “slate” in which you stand in front of the camera, showing your full body, and introduce yourself by name, height and role you are auditioning for.

You may also be asked to sign a Trumpian nondisclosure agreement and pose with it, your face holding a paper contract just under your chin.

Auditioning has always been a torturous affair and the article raises the point about whether it is better to be summarily dismissed in person after waiting for hours to audition, or at a distance by someone reviewing a video it took you 20 minutes to make.

There is a split on both sides of the casting desk. Some directors feel it is too impersonal and commodifies actors. Others feel that self-taped submission opens the field of potential actors to the entire world.

Some actors feel less anxiety with the tape, others feel it is too detached, impersonal and lacks even a hint of feedback necessary to improve.

Raul Esparza, a Tony-nominated Broadway actor and the star of “Law and Order,” acknowledged that he often self-tapes to get work, even as the process edges toward absurdity.

Auditioning for a superhero movie, “I wasn’t told the name of the film, role or the plot, and was asked to tape a scene from ‘Good Will Hunting.’” The feedback was, “Listen, they loved you, but you weren’t exactly right for it.”

What wasn’t he right for? “Good Will Hunting”? Or an unknown hero in an unseen script?

Errico writes she discovered she got cast based on one of her videos, but has no idea how it happened.

That week, I got a text that I was cast in a Sofia Coppola film that I had never heard of, in a role I had never read for and have no idea how I got. Though I was utterly delighted to get the part, the process baffled me.

The lack of transparency may be the biggest issue with this process. Money could be exchanging hands just to be placed in a pile of videos to be considered. You would never know you were immediately out of the running because your thumb drive should have discreetly wrapped in a $100 bill when you handed it to the assistant to the assistant.

Judging from the lack of details provided the two actors quote above, someone could inadvertently find themselves associated with an objectionable company, individual or project.

People with the money to pay for better lighting, make up, digital enhancements to voice and face will have an advantage over others.

Just as the push for more diversity in casting is seeing results, an obscure process and criteria may erode any progress that had been made. The old process really did nothing to advance equitable casting in itself, but having everyone audition in the same room with the same equipment, whittling it down and doing callbacks with people in a similar condition is an equalizer by comparison. (Instead of complaint being everyone is using the same audition piece this year, it will be about the use of the same video filter and green screen background.)

The director could be watching videos on a big screen in the quiet and comfort of her house and the choreographer could be watching on her phone sitting in the middle seat of a five hour flight. You’d never know you didn’t get the part because the in-seat charger wasn’t working and the phone went dead before the choreographer got to you.

As I end this entry, thinking back to the social media following requirement –I am sure I am not the first to say it, but it occurs to me that there is a contradiction in wanting your performers to have a strong social media following so that they can help promote the shows, and then forbidding those followers from taking pictures/video of their favored person when they come to see the show.

[NB: Entry edited 5 min after initial publication to add mention that lack of transparency about process could find people associated with objectionable projects for which they wouldn’t have auditioned.]

A Pulse Just Means The Person Is Alive, Not That It Is Healthy or Happy

Joi Ito who serves on the boards of both the Knight Foundation and MacArthur Foundation wrote a piece for Wired on the importance of finding the right metrics for measuring non-profit effectiveness.

He notes that if you use circulation as a measure, public libraries have been failing for years given that circulation has been continually falling.

But if you only looked at that figure, you’d miss the fascinating transformation public libraries have undergone in recent years. They’ve taken advantage of grants to become makerspaces, classrooms, research labs for kids, and trusted public spaces in every way possible…If we had focused our funding to increase just the number of books people were borrowing, we would have missed the opportunity to fund and witness these positive changes.

As I have quoted/paraphrased Carter Gillies many times, including just last week, just because you can measure it doesn’t mean the result is relevant or useful to you.

Ito writes that identifying relevant metrics is difficult and there is a tendency to default to what is easiest to measure.

The problem is that one pretty much never deals with an issue that is not part of a complex, complicated system. Indications of that problem being addressed successfully is not an indication that everything is running well.

He uses the example of iron levels as a measure of health. While iron is important as a measure of anemia, it can’t tell you about the health of a body by itself. All the medical tests you can conduct can’t tell you about the happiness of the person. (I daresay being subjected to all the tests will be detrimental to the happiness of the person.)

Ito goes on, (my emphasis)

…simple metrics often aren’t enough when it comes to quantifying success. They typically are easier to measure, and they’re not unimportant.

[…]

Similarly, while I believe rigor and best practices are important and support the innovation and thinking going into these metrics when it comes to all types of philanthropy, I think we risk oversimplifying problems and thus having the false sense of clarity that quantitative metrics tend to create.

One of the reasons philanthropists sometimes fail to measure what really matters is that the global political economy primarily seeks what is efficient and scalable. Unfortunately, efficiency and scalability are not the same as a healthy system.

As an example of the breadth and long term vision and planning that is perhaps necessary to employ, Ito cites the 1300 Ise Shrine in Japan which is completely rebuilt by craftsman every 20 years, supported by a supply chain management plan operating on a scope of 200 years. The measure of success of the shrine is entirely opposite the expectations of growth and scalability placed on most non-profit entities today.

The lumber mostly comes from the shrine’s forest managed in 200 year time scales as part of a national afforestation plan dating back centuries. The number of people working at Ise Shrine isn’t growing, the shrine isn’t trying to expand its business, and its workers are happy and healthy—the shrine is flourishing. Their primary concern is the resilience of the forest, rivers, and natural environment around the shrine. How would we measure their success and what can we learn from their flourishing as we try to manage our society and our planet?

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