May 16, 2019

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.”

At certain key moments, we are required to suspend the usual ego boundaries and give over to something other than ourselves. Our likes and our dislikes are necessarily deferred for a moment and we breathe differently. Only in this way might something extraordinary come into existence. What matters in the artistic process is the quality and depth of the encounter.

A skier must give over to and become one with the terrain. The act of writing a book or composing a symphony or making a painting or rehearsing a play requires dedication, a devotion to something or someone that is outside of ourselves, a commitment to the moment, a deep listening to others or to the materials at hand, to the feeling of space or to the elasticity of time, or to space and time together. The process is, at best, full of discovery, invention and imagination. In a rehearsal, I am required to transcend the boundaries of my ego, to meld forces with those who are gathered together and to connect with the space and the time that we inhabit. “Only connect,” as E.M. Forester famously wrote in his novel “Howard’s End.” He went on, “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

Dedicating a performance to someone or something specific can make an enormous difference in the quality of experience. Before a performance, French director Ariane Mnouchkine often says the following words to her company Le Theatre du Soleil: “Tonight someone in our audience will be seeing a play for the very first time. And tonight, a member of our audience is seeing a play for the very last time. We must perform for these two people.” Speaking to actors in rehearsal, Mnouchkine regularly reminds actors that they are acting for the audience. She often directs them to perform, “Pour Nous!” “For us!” Performance at its best is an act of dedication. I have noticed that when an actor is prompted to act “for us,” they tend to make a subtle but significant adjustment in their body. They do not necessarily turn out towards the audience, but they shift their attitude and their posture, which in turn changes the tenor of the moment.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

(Mary Oliver)

If we subscribe to the notion that our lives are inevitably entangled in the lives of others, that we have an effect upon the world that we inhabit by our actions, our words and even our posture, then we must become responsible to said actions, words and posture. Cultivation of oneself and one’s own abilities is certainly an asset, but in these dark times, betterment must be achieved through action and in concert with others. What matters now is the encounter and one’s dedication, with all of its inherent vulnerabilities and misunderstandings. What matters is to unlearn and to learn again together; to meet; to commit to one another and to the enterprise at hand. We must engage in these collective actions so that we may have a future.

What you pay attention to, opens up. And paying attention, truly paying attention, is an act of dedication to the moment. There is a sacredness in the act of dedication, in the act of giving over, in the act of devotion. Understanding how deeply our lives are entwined, I recognize that I my actions are ultimately for others. The theater has the potential to act against isolation.

Dedication suggests commitment, wholeheartedness, enthusiasm, staying power, backbone, purposefulness, conscientiousness, perseverance, tenacity.

Dedication is love



Dedication is passion

Dedication keeps one from quitting.

Dedication is about time. You have to spend a lot of time immersed in what you are dedicated to.

Dedication is about giving yourself over to something outside of yourself.

Dedication is practice and requires practice.

Dedication is responsibility, responsiveness and aliveness. One’s body and mind must be up to full potential in order to do what you are dedicated to.

Dedication is adherence, loyalty, consecration and yes, devotion.

I am the means and not the end. I am the food and not the life.

(E. M. Forrester)

I enjoy directing opera. I find that, in opera, I can join body, mind, emotions and instincts to help carve out a world in which the music can live and be embodied. Having had the pleasure of working with some significant figures in the field of music and opera, I have found that generally the greater the artist, the less ego they tend to inflict upon the process. Mstislav Rostropovich, the celebrated Russian cellist and conductor, for example, conducted the opera Nicholas and Alexandra by Deborah Drattell that I directed at the Los Angeles Opera in 2004. By the time that I worked with him he had already reached a rather advanced age. But to me he seemed filled with both light and delight. In some ways he was like a child, filled with the enthusiasms of the moment. “Call me Slava,” he said repeatedly when I tried to say “Maestro.” I wonder if his dedication to music allowed him to exist in this way. It seemed to me that so much music had passed through him, through his body and senses, that there was simply no huge ego left.

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that an effective artist must simultaneously have a huge ego and no ego at the same time. The ego is meant to drive a stake into the ground and stay the course, stay committed. But then no ego allows the music to flow and frees up actions that are in concert with the universe.

I have found that the greatest obstacle to dedication turns out to be my “self,” my fear of losing myself, my fear of failure, of things falling apart. How can I surrender myself when my “self” is perhaps simply the biological urge to hold on, to cling, to cling to life, to continue to survive? But by clinging to myself I may strangle myself.

In cultivating dedication, here is what I tell myself:

Plunge headlong into what you are doing. Erase the boundaries. Let go.

Start before you are ready.

Starting creates momentum. There is always a reason not to begin, not to start, not to pull the trigger. But starting allows me to encounter the obstacles that will ultimately help me to get out of my own way.

Send whatever comes your way back out. Send it back out again actively, muscularly and with feeling. Dedicate.

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