Singer-songwriter Ben Folds recently wrote a memoir entitled A Dream About Lightning Bugs. As a child during the summer months, he captured lightning bugs, also known as fireflies, to put into glass jars in order to show and astonish his friends. The metaphor of capturing lightning bugs in jars is not lost on him as a metaphor for what artists do.
Creating art is about processing, distilling and making visible to others what is luminous to you. We encounter a moment in nature, in life, in our studies, on our journeys, in our relationships, we absorb the experience and then, perhaps, we would like to share it. We want to put it into a jar and point to it and allow its inner light to be visible to others. And yet, as we move away from childhood, to do so is not so easy.
Each human being is a living system of evolving patterns and interconnecting linkages. As we come into contact with different organisms, different patterns, we are changed by our interactions with them. The rubbing of one pattern against another, in nature, in social interaction or in art, alters us. The art that we then make is an attempt to share with others the reverberations that we have experienced on our respective journeys. What we make need not imitate nature in the sense of appearance but rather, in the way nature functions, the organic process by which patterns accumulate, interconnect, and grow into relationships.
It is one thing to be inspired to make something, but it is an altogether different story to then craft this original inspiration into an expression, i.e., a painting, a piece of music or a performance, that captures the intensity of natural phenomenon. We cannot create by simply imitating natural experience, rather, we must transform the original inspiration using the given tools of our discipline. Gorgeous patterns appear on the surface of a lake at sunset, but to capture that feeling, that impression, requires a lifetime of study and practice. Putting paint on canvas initially feels awkward. We walk and we talk in life, but to move and speak on the stage requires nothing short of the reinvention of speech and movement.
Since the fall of Adam and Eve, or perhaps since the splitting of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, mature human beings have become self-conscious. The unaffected facility and ease that a child enjoys while drawing or dancing is no longer available to us. To create something that feels natural can no longer be undertaken naturally because our own self-consciousness gets in the way. Our simplest movements can feel and appear affected and awkward. If you ride a bicycle and try to make the activity entirely conscious so that you make each movement deliberately and with planning, you will fall off the bike. The steps toward creating something that feels natural is complicated and usually painstaking, involving repetition, study, re-arranging, waiting, changing course, and taking illogical but innovative leaps. To capture and display lighting bugs in a jar, we have to through the back door to get to the front.
The key to going through the back door to get to the front is training, which can be divided into three parts: 1. physical practice and repetition 2. An ongoing in-depth study of a chosen discipline throughout its history and an examination of its usefulness in the world including the theoretical tenants that grew up around it. 3. The cultivation of enthusiasm; maintaining a love of the art form.
- Practice and repetition:
Through practice and repetition, we develop the skills necessary to perform. In music there are scales, interval training, breath training, dexterity exercises etc. In the visual arts there is sketching, still-life drawing and life drawing. In theater it is necessary to re-learn how to walk and how to speak, how to be still and how to modulate energy. For every discipline, patience and stillness is a necessary skill. Standing or sitting, not wasting energy with unnecessary fritz demands massive resources of energy. Henry Miller wrote, “Stand still like a hummingbird.” Learning how to be still requires tremendous effort and regular practice. We must learn how to sustain concentration and stillness while remaining fully aware of the surroundings.
Developing specific skills allows us to perform or draw or make music in a way that seems natural to the viewer or the audience. In all of the arts, the training should not be visible to the audience, rather it is submerged, invisible in the artistic product. In order to accomplish this, practice must be gradual and incremental and old habits must be unlearned, and new ones developed. We grow artistically through instigating daily micro-habits. We have to expend a great deal of effort in order to make what we do appear easeful and natural.
Through study, what is archaic begins to mix with what is nascent. We create a continuity with our ancestors by learning about them and in this way, we are able to stand firmly upon their shoulders. In tracing our fingers over their trajectories, we learn that we are not separate, and our forebears become part of who we are now. It is through the study of traditions that we are able to re-define the notion of originality. In this way, what we make can both feel fresh and experimental but also seem ancient.
- Cultivate passion:
To nurture an ongoing and enduring interest, love and enthusiasm for one’s chosen art form is a requirement and it requires constant vigilance and attention.
In my own journey as a director, the three-pronged training began early and continues to be a daily practice.
- Practice and repetition:
Each day, as a young director, the path to the rehearsal room was fraught. I was generally scared; scared that I would be found out; scared that I could not live up to others’ expectations; apprehensive of failure. The image that now comes to mind is looking down at my own shoes. I saw my feet walking towards the rehearsal room and I watched them as they kept moving despite my deepest trepidations. This image of my shoes and my feet moving encapsulates the essence of my early training. I sensed that if my feet could just keep walking, despite the fear, somehow, I could make a life in the theater. I like to imagine that it was my shoes that got me there.
I have also been blessed with the study of T’ai Chi Chuan, which, by the grace of excellent teachers, I began in 1974. This daily physical practice of the solo form has been what I return to always as a constant source of growth and study, learning physically from this ancient form and philosophy.
In 1975, I was convinced that I could never get into a serious MFA course in directing so I applied for and was accepted into New York University’s then 2-year MA in theater history and criticism, a program that later changed its name to Performance Studies. During the two years, I had the opportunity to study theater from the perspective of anthropology and sociology with Richard Schechner, Michael Kirby, Francoise Kourilsky, Ted Hoffman and Brooks McNamara. The exposure to their teaching and the immense amount of reading and writing required, instilled in me an appetite for a lifetime of study. There is always more to study and to consider and to examine. The theater, for me, is a treasure trove, an archeological site and a heuristic and hermeneutic practice.
- Cultivate passion:
Passion and enthusiasm are difficult to describe and tricky to cultivate. I have watched colleagues who once had passion, lose their passion and throw in the towel. Being responsible to and taking care of one’s own excitement and enthusiasm, is a daily practice. For me, regular visits to museums, travel and conversations and collaborations with people engaged in exciting projects is helpful. It is key to keep a beginner’s mind and allow for new possibilities and to be influenced by other disciplines. The phrase, “it doesn’t matter” can be poison to the creative spirit.
And yet, no matter how much we train, we should not expect or even want perfection. Instead, our goal can be a glorious and lively imperfection that spills over into life. In whatever way we choose to train, what we do will end up being imperfect. But we can learn to appreciate this unstable imperfection as beautiful and we can derive enduring pleasure from the mixture of form and roughness, resistance and gravity, breath and life. Physical presence is untheoretical, unpredictable and it is rough because nature and culture are intimately part of each other.
Organic form arises from our interactions with the material and from the way the world is. And our failures feed information into the total creative process. If we are lucky, we will make something new that feels as though it has always been there.