A New Year for Making a Blank Slate

Empty Field. NE Iowa. Fall 2013

Empty Field. NE Iowa. Fall 2013

The new year has begun – the year end lists are over – the future is before us.

Last year may have been one of the most significant years for me for reasons both personal and professional. The whole first half of the year was booked solid with plays, established and newly-created, with companies and artists I’ve longed to work with for several years. In that sense it was an incredible and satisfying year, as I got to add those company names to my resume. Much of that work was referenced here in posts scattered throughout the year.

The new year before me is a blank slate. And by that I mean right now there’s nothing on the books.

I look forward to carving out time for exploring some ideas for a new play, auditioning for new (to-me) companies, and perhaps even redefining my artistic world.

My low-key Fringe

The 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival is half over, and so far….I’ve seen only three shows.

This isn’t so much by design or choice, as it is by circumstance. Sometimes life gets in the way of art.

Or, in the way of what could be, should be, oh-I-wish-to-God-it-were, art.

Two of the three that I’ve seen have been fascinating, inventive and fun rides. The third one….not so much. Could’ve been. But wasn’t.

It’s not important which is which.

And I write that not because I don’t want to write a “review” or critique the work or am afraid to criticize. I write that because it’s not important. That’s part of the Fringe experience. People try things, and sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.

But…nothing has been a waste of time.

I was having a great chat the other day over lunch with a couple of talented Fringe artists that are also just observers this year. We agreed that in performing and writing, either do it well or get the F out of the way.

We were more eloquent than that.

Fringe tests my patience with mediocrity. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m a know-it-all, or a snob. But really….no. I’m just an audience member. One who happens to know a thing or two, but truthfully I’m just audience member this time.

And everyone’s experience of a show is valid.

I want to be charmed. I want to be pulled in to a story. I want to the world to disappear as I travel the road alongside the characters and storytellers and the pictures on stage.

Fringe festivals give us the chance to experience such a wide range of shows and performers. I only wish I could make it more a priority.

Tonight I’m off to see my fourth show, which is highly anticipated.

This may turn out to be the year I see the least, and in some ways that’s disappointing. Which only puts the pressure on to spend those few hours the best way I can.

After all….that’s part of the beauty and magic of live performance. See it when it happens, or never see it all.

What I’ve Learned at this Year’s Fringe

Today is the last day of the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and due to various reasons this is my least attended Fringe in several years. (I will not likely hit the dozen shows mark.) However, just like all other years I’ve learned something, but this time it might be more about myself than about art, performance or experimentation.

courtesy of Minnesota Fringe Festival

The ten shows I’ve seen thus far have been a bit of a mixed bag of things. Some were on my schedule because I felt obligated or had a personal connection to someone involved or to the show itself and I needed/wanted to find out how it evolved. Other shows were on my list because the topic intrigued me and I thought it would be interesting. And then there were the sure-fires, though few.

Part way through the week I realized my first truth about how I like my art:

I will put up with weak writing and good performance more than the opposite recipe. One of the shows was Ash Land, which had some good word of mouth, an interesting preview and it was getting a lot of buzz. The creators had done a few previous Fringes with some success, but I hadn’t seen them. I thought the show was beautiful, creative and intriguingly staged. The audience seemed exuberant in its reception. I was enthralled, and even jealous at times that someone had done some creative stuff on a topic I’ve been toyed with approaching.

Upon leaving I commented to my partner, “That was really good.” He didn’t share the opinion. He thought it was “good” but that it could’ve been so much better. After reviewing the audience reviews more closely, and talking with others whose opinions I trust (aka understand) I saw that there were really mixed reactions. I could see the weaknesses others pointed out, but somehow I over looked it because, I think, I enjoyed the approach they took to the work, the quality of the staging, and the performances of a couple of the people. (A few performances were significantly weaker.)  But all in all, I finally said, I guess I’ll value performance over writing.

These words would soon get modified.

A few days later I was watching a one-person story-telling piece by a writer/performer whom I’ve known for several years, but have seen little of his work. These stories were interesting, clever and even a bit funny at times. I’d love to read them, in fact. In a published form. But the performance was weak, clumsy and painful to watch. I wasn’t sure if the whole thing was memorized or not and there were several moments where I thought the whole thing had come crashing down.

So: ok writing but weak, amateurish performance and I wanted to slip out the back door. (Sadly, I couldn’t.) I considered the whole thing a waste of my time.

The lesson: I value performance over all else. The material can be crap or brilliant, but if the performance is weak I won’t care either way.

My favorite experience, if there can be a favorite, was probably Carol and Cotton. I was intrigued because it was a local, historical crime story. I’m a bit partial to stories of real people and have always been fascinated by things like crime, wondering what it is that can take a person to the extreme of humanity with something like murder. I was almost turned off by the promo video, which I felt was lacking in its enticement. But it had a strong cast and it’s a company with a good rep. And as the writer and director of a previous successful Fringe play about local history, I felt I should go. It was a strong, powerful production, with finessed details in the performances. Good writing and solid acting with effective staging. Like real theatre. This was exciting to me.

And, of my sure-fires, I wasn’t disappointed. The comedic talents of Nightmare Without Pants alone could have their own festival.

As I was thinking about my limited availability to see shows during this final weekend, and as I contemplated what I had seen I came to the conclusion that my time (and money) are worth something. I’m willing to take a risk, and I’m eager to see new works, new writers, new performers. But I’m not willing to waste my resources on mediocrity. I’m a more demanding audience member.

My top five take aways this year, thus far:

  • Fringe Festival is a performance festival. I want to see a good performance. I would think the performers (and directors) would want that too.
  • Any topic, no matter how mundane or pedestrian it might seem, can be turned in to an engaging and moving story with the right words, staging and treatment.
  • Dated material is ineffective, even if its subject matter is still relevant.
  • There is nothing more boring to me as an audience member than self-indulgence, and if it’s in the performance, writing and subject matter, all at once, then it can be deadly. It should be avoided at all costs.
  • Simplicity can be powerful, and anything in a script or production that doesn’t support the spine of the play in some way should be eliminated.

Actually, let me throw in one more lesson:

  • Never start a play with a group of guys sitting around on stage and have the first line be “What do you guys wanna do?” I think I sprained my eyes as they rolled.

In the end, these aren’t new truths I’ve realized for myself, and these aren’t things I’ve never said before here. It’s just that my experience over the past week have brought these once more to the fore-front of my critical mind.

I think I can catch one more show, in just a few hours, and I’m hoping this leaves the positive after-taste I need to sustain me until next summer.

Happy Fringing!

A Room of One’s Own

I learned yesterday that a local coffee shop will be closing at the end of the week, The Coffee Gallery at Open Book. I’m a bit bummed as it one of the few lunch places that I can most easily frequent. It’s in the lobby of an old building which several years ago was remodeled into office space for several book-related organizations, and the casual dining in the open space, with its tall ceilings, large windows and free wi-fi makes it a comfortable getaway.

But I’m mostly bummed because it’s a space where I’ve done quite of bit of writing, and re-writing, over the past few years. I was able to step away from the day-job with my laptop for a while and get some work done, or at least feel as if I’ve had a brief encounter with creative expression. A couple years ago I spent a lot of time, even on weekends, writing a play, and more than a few of the ah-ha and big “what if” moments happened in that space. A lot of work was done there.

It’s hard to get away and just write, or just think, or just ponder an idea. So much of our daily lives are rush rush and go go and there’s little time or environment for reflection. Ironically I meant to be over there now, writing this, but the place was packed and there was no where to sit, so I couldn’t get away today…I had to come back to the day-job and try to hide for a few minutes while I eat my lunch….and write some notes here….

…..and just now, as if to emphasize the fact that there is no room of one’s own, I was interrupted and then discovered I’ve lost my connection to the internet. (I was quick enough to copy/paste elsewhere in order continue writing offline.) Cruel fates…..

Just having a quiet place to lose oneself with one’s own thoughts….I find it calming, refreshing and helpful to the creative process. I’ll need to find that new space.

Virginia was right.

Retreat, Regroup, Rebuild

I’m wrapping up a week away at a secluded, lakeside, cabin, surrounded by nature.

I had hoped to make this an opportunity for inspiration and creativity, a place to find time to sit and write down thoughts and ideas, or sketch out scenes for a new play. A place to read.

Alas, it seems as though I needed a retreat to nothingness more than I thought, and I reveled in the beauty that surrounded me.

I didn’t start that play or sketch out that story.

I didn’t read the things I thought I might, as research for a new project.

But I did find some beauty in every day things, and in the autumnal sights and smells that surrounded me.

I took a hundred photos in just a few days.

And for that alone, I should be grateful to have been given the chance and the gift of the experience.

The Non-fiction Fiction in Our World

Just now, sitting on my patio on a beautiful late-summer morning, I finished reading a long, and sometimes drudgingly difficult, book. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson wasn’t quite what I was hoping it to be, mostly because one of his earlier books, Devil in the White City, is one of my—if not the—favorite books. Devil has a combination of history, Chicago, architecture and serial murder. Some of my favorite topics. I had also read his Thunderstruck, a non-fiction dramatized book about the development of the wireless radio signal, full of passionate pursuits and unknown (to me) history.

This latest book was a bit more complex but also involves history, a world class city and murder: it’s about the American ambassador to Germany and his family in Nazi Berlin. It wasn’t an easy read mostly because I’ve learned how little I know of the details of that time – names of people (and there are a lot!) and the structure of the American ambassador/consulate departments and the structure of pre-WWII German government, etc. It was a lot of things to track and try to get through.

Sadly, I almost gave up.

It was only in the last third or so of the book that it all started to come together for me. Larson is a heady-writer. Extremely academic, very journalistic, but with an occasional (though less in this book than previous) flowery, romantic descriptive passage. Now I realize that what he does, especially here with the Ambassador Dodd and the Nazis, is slowly paint a picture in bits and pieces. It’s a kind of journey where along the line few parts of the road, in and of themselves, are interesting, But somewhere along the path they all start to come together as a whole, and then his writing seems a bit genius. While first half of the book felt as if it were taking forever, the last half all fell in to place easily.

There were numerous (perhaps too numerous) characters (actually, people) to follow, and follow for years. In the end though it presents a picture of people at a remarkable time in our and Europe’s history; a time that none of the players involved could have any idea how important it was or what was going to happen in the coming years. I think the combination of history and Larson’s dramatized narrative is cleanly woven. It’s not textbook – it’s non-fiction fiction, as he includes descriptive passages and dialogue that he couldn’t have garnered from his 70 pages of bibliography and notes at the end of the book.

That lengthy documentation puts in to perspective about the breadth and value of research and homework when writing on a subject. Being that my own most successful writing was a dramatized piece of nonfiction (albeit a play) I should remember to be diligent about such thoroughness.

Truthfully though, the things I was thinking as I finished the book this morning was what’s happening in our own world and country these days. How will today’s international relations and political strife and despots be seen in 75 years? And like Dodd, who is speaking the words that are falling on deaf ears?

I don’t mean to sound political (as I’ve vowed not to do in this blog) but this world is ripe with topics that writers and artists should explore, and explore well.

Breathe in…

Last night I spent an hour with some of my favorite performers, a group of people who I jokingly refer to as “my favorite Irish poet group.” I mean, they’re the only group of performing poets I know of, Irish or otherwise, and frankly they’re all I need.

I’m a bit of a fan-boy. That’s how someone described it anyway, and I’d have to say it’s fairly accurate. I am enamored of Scream Blue Murmur.

I first became aware of them several years ago when they were performing in the Fringe at Red Eye, where there was another show which I had worked on. A friend from that told me about them and said they were really good: “You should see them.” I trust her judgement so I went, even though my first thought had been “Irish Poets?….Spoken word kind of stuff?…Stand there and read poetry?….hmm. Ok.”

I expected perhaps, an enjoyable, pleasant, literary event.

What I got were powerful words and beautiful images that flowed out of them, filled with anger, regret, hope and, somehow, peace. I was enthralled, and I wanted more.

Since then I’ve seen them a few more times, whenever they’ve come to town. (I mean, they live in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after all. Google maps tells me…well, actually it refuses to calculate it.) If you haven’t seen them it’s unfortunate because their work is rather hard to describe, but I’ll try.

Their current show, Something’s Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse is essentially about how life in America had been good and then suddenly the economy tanks, unemployment sky rockets, people lose their homes, and there’s anger and resentment everywhere, some pointed at those whose skin color is darker than many.

No, this is the 1930s.

I know, right?

It’s poetry, at the heart. Modern, lyrical, sweeping poetry, typically with a kick or a twist or an edge. There are no rhyming pretty pieces about flowers and puppies. There are, instead, flowing words like “persistent reliving of traumatic experience” and“southern trees bear strange fruit” on topics like the ravages of war, racism, violence, hunger, poverty, class struggles, human rights.

It’s political. If nothing else, it’s about politics. Like all their shows. They’re kind of modern day hippies, screaming at the establishment. But quietly, with a lilt.“if you see them massing in the distance/Mobilise – don’t let them rise.”

It’s music. This show is more music than any of their past shows, it seems, although there’s always been music. This time there was lots of music – not only by Aisling, Chelley, Gordon and Brian (I’m wondering where is PhatBob??) but also by the members of the audience, who were given plastic water bottles with a bit of pebbles inside to act as percussive shakers, taking part in the music. The place became a party, with lights up and people singing along and shaking their bottles and tapping their feet. “Sing to me, Billy Sunday…”

It’s visual. In many parts of the show there are videos or pictures flashed on the wall behind, relating the topic at hand. Old black and white newsreels of bustling cities, print ads that you’d never see today (“More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand!”) and pictures of things that are ugly from our history like black men hanging from trees.“Scent of Magnolias, sweet and fresh, / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” No, that’s not comfortable to hear, see or witness. It shouldn’t be. So we think about our fellow man and remember, and re-think our modern world.

It’s communal. Their words are about all of us or at least about all of our lives. At one point in the show they invited members of the audience up on stage with them to sing and shake their makeshift rattles. It was one of the motliest groups I’ve seen, with a wide swath of diversity. The 350 lb man, and the tiny, dread-locked, gay black man, and the girl with pink hair, and the 6′ transgendered woman in heels. A picture of all walks of life, each with their own struggles, or perhaps the same.

I was struck last night on my way home about all the stuff I’ve seen them do. Here you have a group of folks who live in Belfast, and for all I know are born and raised in Northern Ireland. A place with a violent, tumultuous recent history over sovereignty and religion. Where bombings and killing were often too commonplace. Yet the work I’ve seen from them has often been about our own country, our own struggles, and our own shameful past. They know from whence they speak.

No, this doesn’t do it justice. I can’t describe their work. The name belies the fact that there is no screaming. And the most striking thing is the underlying element of commonality, of charity and goodness, of love and understanding. There’s something about them and their words and their utterances. There’s something about the playful glint in their eyes, the sincerity of their smiles, the singing crowd…the sexy accents. I want to sit with them, listen to them, discuss the days’ news with them and buy them another round, in some loud, crowded pub. They make me think, make me feel, make me wonder – about myself, my neighbor, my world.

“Breathe in Scream Blue Murmur / Breathe out humanity.” It’s a breath I hope to take again, even if I have to travel to the UK for it.

The last words I heard were: “We may have saved millions.” Indeed. I hope so.

See them yet this weekend at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

________

all italicized quotes, © Scream Blue Murmur.