Make It New

Jan 15, 2014

Most SITI Company members have heard me tell the “naked nun” joke far too many times. It goes something like this: soon after emerging from a hot bath, a nun, still naked, hears a knock on her cell door.  “Who’s there?” she asks.  A man’s booming voice answers, “It’s the blind man.” Assuming that he cannot see her, the nun does not bother putting on her clothes and opens the door to find a man carrying a large package on his shoulder.  He looks her up and down and says, “Nice tits, now where do you want the blinds?” 

If any company member is present when I am telling the “naked nun” joke, I know that I must find a way to tell it with an irresistible freshness.  If I do not, I know that my colleagues will not be amused. For me the task is clear: make it new!  To reinvent the story while telling it requires heightened awareness and wakefulness. I pay sharp attention to attack, accents and timing.

Similarly, I find that part of the challenge, of working with the same group of people for over two decades, is that it is very difficult to rest on one’s laurels and suggest old stand-by ideas or solutions to new problems. In rehearsal I cannot propose ideas that we have used before without getting grief about applying concepts from a previous production. “You have pulled that card already,” someone is bound to say.

I cannot remember who proposed that with every novel a writer must also reinvent the form and function of the novel as an art form.  Ezra Pound’s battle cry “Make it new!” is a tall order.  How do we make something new from the bits and pieces of what we inherit from the world, which is essentially what we work with?  First one must be wide-awake and attentive to the inherited contours and shapes.

At a theater conference in Paris, Michelle Kokosowski, a well-known French promoter of global theater initiatives, described the difference between a teacher and a master.  “A teacher,” she said, “teaches you how to do something. A master lays out everything he or she knows and then asks you to make something new out of it.” 

How is it possible to practice, to train in the art of making it new?  Perhaps by starting with the smallest possible increment and in that discrete arena tempt the limits of your ability or knowledge. If you practice testing your limits on a small scale then, perhaps with practice, you may learn the habit of testing your limits with larger tasks thereby making it new.  In Prompts for Anne, Steven Latham posed a helpful question about what constitutes the smallest unit of meaning in a work of art.

From Steven Latham:

Came across this interesting little book about writing yesterday called Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg, and it has me thinking:

What is the smallest unit of meaning of a work of art?  If in writing, it’s the sentence, then… what about other arts?

In cinema, it’s the most obvious. A scene is composed of shot-sequences of various durations that accrete into story, i.e. any particular edit of filmic sequence. In a good movie, these individual “sentences” have an importance in themselves. In this analogy, a scene is like a paragraph and the movie itself is like a short story. Chapters are uncommon, for example. Russian Ark: a single, beautiful long sentence. Hitchcock was THE master of such sentences. Bresson, obviously, too. They worked from scripts, which they even wrote, but their real writing was made of the edit and the shot sequence.

A development of cinema, TV is more like the novel: episodes are like chapters.

In music? A melody? Or “melody plus rhythm” defined as something like the syntactic organization of sounds into discreet units of periodization? I don’t know. That wasn’t a good sentence.

Poetry: the line? (Then poetry would be a music/writing hybrid: the sentence divided by this “melody plus rhythm.”)

Painting? The mark or stroke? Or would that be equal to the word rather than the sentence? Then what would succeed the mark/stroke, other than the painting itself? (But some paintings are like single sentences whereas others are much “larger.”)

And theatre…  What is the “sentence” of theatre? (Not talking about the script, but about what kind of units compose the living scene.) Of what such units does a theatre scene consist?

The question interests me because, as Klinkenborg (and also Stanley Fish, in his writing book, incidentally) says: the writer’s real work happens at the level of the sentence. Learning to compose good “sentences”–whatever the medium–seems like the important task to me now. Am I making sense and do you find this analogy helpful at all?

My response:

Steven, thank you for the introduction to Klinkenborg’s excellent new book, a wonderful read.

Perhaps the theatrical equivalent to the sentence in writing is action.  Action is the essential grammar from which we make sentences and paragraphs on the stage.  And we need to learn how to write articulately with clear and readable actions. The “writing” onstage must emanate from a feeling derived from having something to say.  The philosopher Paul Woodruff’s defines the theater:  “The art by which human beings make or find human action worth watching, in a measured time and place.”  The action of course can be broken into increasingly small increments, but I find that actions are the essential building blocks of our trade. And with the grammar of action, the details matter immensely.


From David Rodwin:

I think an interesting new blog would be on how to keep going. How to continue to create despite the constant challenges outside the artistic realm. I know it’s been a existential struggle for me as an artist. And as I edit video for commercials right now, I wonder what I am now. Now that I almost never do live performance besides a little storytelling at the Moth now and then.

I’ve moved from medium to medium unable to find a foundation that would allow me to build a career upon. Hopeful that if I shift to a new context things will finally work. So I jumped from music theatre to opera, to avant grade opera, to solo opera, to hipster puppet review to monologue and after a decade, finally threw in the towel worried I’d be performing for the same 99 people at LaMaMa for the rest of my life and never reaching a broader audience much less make a living from my creative pursuits. I think having or creating an ensemble (if it’s ‘successful’) can remedy some of these issues, but there’s a deep sense of artistic isolation outside an ensemble that makes it hard to continue. It’s a war against everything out there that discourages the life of a career in the arts. And while I try to maintain a creative life in some way, I often feel like I’ve abandoned my station and failed.

Which brings up another interesting blog which would be on how to define success (and failure). It’s something I think I do at the end of every year as I evaluate how I’ve spent my time and how I’d like to spend the next year in hopefully a more fulfilling way.

My response:

I try to use the actual frustrations of survival to fuel the creation of expressive work.  And I believe that a sign of success is found in the act of creation itself. If you are managing to create in this difficult world, and it is always difficult, you are already successful.  I do not mean to be reductive or overly simplistic, but my core belief about the act of making work in difficult circumstances is the action undertaken in the light of and in spite of what feels like impossible odds. I find if you wallow too much in the discomfort of the struggle you will miss using the distress as necessary fuel.


In the sprit of “Make it New”:

I want to share with you the news that SITI’s long-time Executive Director, Megan Wanlass, will be re-locating to Los Angeles to become Cornerstone Theater Company’s new Managing Director. Megan has been with SITI Company since 1995 when she joined the Company as the Stage Manager, eventually becoming Managing Director and then Executive Director.  Under her steady hand and outstanding guidance, SITI Company grew into a fiscally stable and internationally renowned theater ensemble. Most recently Megan played a significant role in the successful launch of SITI’s new year-round Conservatory.  We are thrilled for Cornerstone and proud of Megan’s remarkable contributions to SITI’s history. 

Megan’s transition represents an opportunity for fresh initiatives and new possibilities for SITI Company. This is our opportunity to “make it new!”  The Company’s health and wellbeing is strong, its spiritual commitment to the coming years is buoyant and positive. For over twenty years SITI has produced groundbreaking productions that have toured to over eighty-eight cities, thirty-two states and twenty countries.  With its new year-round Conservatory with students from around the world, SITI is moving forward with an eye to legacy and future adventures with a new person at the administrative/producer helm.

We at SITI are so very proud of Megan’s work and her personal trajectory.  We thank her for the hard work and her endless commitment to the growth and flourishing of SITI. Michelle Preston, SITI’s Deputy Director, will be the interim replacement for Megan until new management is in place.  SITI Company is working with Barbara Janowitz and Michael Ross to find a suitable replacement.  The search will be intensive, thorough and wide reaching.

Megan Wanlass has been my close partner, friend and collaborator over the past nineteen years. I am grateful for her vision, creativity and commitment and I will miss her. But I am also so proud of who she has become in the world.