The Art Brain

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The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” - Viktor Shklovsky 

 

When I enter a museum, I tend to shift unconsciously to my art brain. I prepare myself to experience the exhibition on hand with a special lens, with my aesthetic sensibilities dilated. There are so many wonderful examples of visitors to museums who mistake a mop and bucket left out by a maintenance worker for an art installation. How perfect! How instructive. How useful. In a reverse instance, would a viewer respond the same way to a masterpiece normally enshrined in the Metropolitan Museum if they beheld the same work displaced, say, at a garage sale?

Am I a Tuning Fork?

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“This play resonated with me.” What does that mean?  Why does a particular play, painting or piece of music resonate with me, and others do not? The Oxford dictionary defines resonance as, “responding to vibrations of a particular frequency, especially by itself strongly vibrating.” Resonance is what ripples and radiates when something is created. One energetic being influences the vibrations of another.  If something has resonance for me, it typically means that it has a special meaning or that it is particularly important to me. 

Fragility, Discomfort, Vulnerability and Curiosity

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The fragments fly apart and shift, trembling on the threshold of a kind of fullness: the minor wonder of remembering; the greater wonders of forgetfulness. (John Koethe)

Perhaps I became a theater director thanks to the special brilliance of Adrian Hall who was the founding Artistic Director of Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, Rhode Island from 1964 until 1988. My first experience of professional theater happened in 1967 at Trinity Rep when I was 15 years old as part of a new program entitled Project Discovery, instituted with support from the newly founded National Endowment of the Arts. Thanks to this initiative, every school child in Rhode Island had the opportunity to travel to Providence to see theater. I arrived in a caravan of big yellow school buses from Middletown High School and my first experience of professional theater was Hall’s production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Afterwards, I felt somehow altered and provoked.  The production roused me and gave me direction. I did not really understand what I had seen or heard but the experience galvanized me; physically, mentally and emotionally.  My life would never be the same. 

Dedication

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We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our own passion, and our passion is our task. (Henry James)

In a recent public interview, novelist Margaret Atwood was invited to read a passage from her book “The Handmaid’s Tale.”  Afterwards, a bit in awe, the interviewer asked, “How did it feel to write that?”  Margaret Atwood responded rather sternly, “I have no idea.” When pressed further she said, “When you are skiing down a steep slope, you do not think about what it feels like to ski down a steep slope. If you did that, an accident might occur. It is dangerous to think about what you are feeling. You are skiing.” 

The Experience of Theater

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someone sees a play. they ask, what’s it about? i’m, like, you just saw it. it’s “about” the experience you just had. … blank face. … but what’s it about? they ask again. … hmm. maybe it’s time we chat about how the play is the thing & not a stand in for some other thing

(Twitter message posted by playwright Caridad Svich)

Welcome to My Party!

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One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.

(Henry Miller)

During the late 1990s SITI Company regularly led two and three-week summer workshops in Los Angeles during which time we had the great pleasure of getting to know many members of the local theater community. Generally, SITI stayed at the Highland Gardens Hotel in Hollywood not far from the Magic Castle Hotel. Highland Gardens is a rather seedy consortium of buildings arranged around a liver shaped swimming pool, boasting that Janis Joplin died there of a heroin overdose in 1970 in room 105.

Ways of Seeing

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Perhaps we could say that the power of theatre is that it gives us the opportunity of a sustained gaze where we can move slowly from looking to seeing. In such moments of ocular transmutation, we catch a glimpse of something other, something deeper; a second reality that tells us more about ourselves and the world we inhabit. This is the gift of theatre, allowing us to see through things to their core, where things are brought to light that might otherwise remain hidden.

(Brian Kulick) 

The word theater is derived from the ancient Greek theatron (θέατρον). “Thea” means eyes and “tron” is a place.  The theater is, literally, a place of seeing.  The Greeks seem to have had many words for seeing, each rich with different conceptions of the act. 

Ghosts

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The thing about the past is that it’s not the past.

(old Irish saying)

Perhaps the theater is a form of eulogy and our job is to raid the graveyard regularly. The ways in which we remember dead people, those who did not finish what they had to say, and the way that we give them voice is what matters. I like to think that if the theater were a verb, it would be “to remember.” We re-member the parts. We put the fragments back together again. We excavate history in order to allow the past and those who had not finished communicating speak through us in the present moment. We are flesh and sensation and we look to be filled with the spirits of ghosts. Can we vibrate with their energy and consciousness?

Conversation or Violence

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We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it. Conversation and violence. (Sam Harris)

You push me and then I push you back. If I do not intentionally restrain myself, I will naturally push you harder than you pushed me. If then you push me back, without intentionally restraining yourself, your push will be even harder than mine. Without deliberate modulation, the escalation will continue. To speak scientifically, if the “top down” control system in the pre-frontal cortex of my brain fails to modulate my actions, especially if there is an anger-provoking stimulus like a push, violence ensues.  These reactions are chemical, and they are natural.

What is True What is False

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Yes, I have tricks in my pocket; I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

(Tennessee Williams) 

In the current climate of fear and lie mongering, Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is worth listening to again or re-reading. Pinter sits in a wheelchair in London, too ill to make the trip to Stockholm, and speaks eloquently about the difference between truth and lies, reality and unreality in art versus in political life. He begins by taking issue with something that he himself wrote in 1958: “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false.  A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”

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