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Can you be a humble artist?

May 22, 2010

Advertising myself is difficult for me.  Sending out a notice to my theater department that I had a blog was quite a leap of faith.  Yet, as I continually checked the small graph that WordPress provides showing me how many people visited my blog each day, I realized that a dialogue was not going to happen unless I practiced some shameless self promotion.  It worked.  Yesterday a record 111 people visited my blog, two people emailed me and 3 people posted comments.  Now the task becomes, how do you keep the dialogue going over time?  The pressure is on to make each post engaging enough to lure people back to this site again and again. 

Do you find it hard to promote yourselves as well?  After all, if we really value our art, promoting it should be a joy. Scream it from the hillsides that we are making art and we want to share it with everyone!  Or do we think we need to be more humble?  Or are we filled with self doubts that we may not be good enough?  What holds us back?

I always have self doubts about my art.  You would think at my age that doubts would go way but they don’t.  I don’t trust people who tell me that I am good at what I do and usually just think that they are being friendly or politically correct.   Or, because I am a professor, what else would I expect my students to say?  Certainly a student won’t tell me that my work sucks – especially if they are in a class with me.  Out in the professional world colleagues always tell other theater professionals how great the show was because they want to get work with that theater in the future.  So we have developed a culture of niceness that I simply don’t trust.  Instead, I fill myself with doubts.

Now, should anyone read this and think that I am fishing for compliments, you could not be more wrong. I wouldn’t trust the compliment anyway.  What I am trying to point out is that we, as a culture, feel we need to be humble about ourselves and our art instead of promoting ourselves shamelessly to the world.   Do we risk being to egotistical and unlikable?  Or must we have that ego in order to succeed?  Where is the line to be drawn?



May 21, 2010

Blogs are tough.   If you are not famous or don’t have major social controversy or gossip, then you just don’t count.  No one cares about issues anymore.   We only seem to care if the issue directly affects our daily life.  One of my colleagues told me, “If you want to get faculty to a meeting, tell them parking will be discussed.  It is a sure-fire way to fill the room.”   Sad, isn’t it?

Now perhaps discussing the future of the arts is not as crucial as feeding starving orphans.  But in the recent NY Times article on  the top 40 bloggers, crucial items are not discussed in their blogs either. However, discussing the pros and cons of the last American Idol episode apparently are crucial issues to our lives. 

So now I am just pessimistic.  I started this blog hoping to create a dialogue on why the arts were important to people. I expected to hear some interesting stories about how the arts personally affected people’s lives.  Or at least I would learn that more than 4 people out there in the larger scope of the world bother to respond.  But no.  The world is a big black hole that is more concerned with Tiger Wood’s affairs than anything of substance.

So I should not be surprised that no matter what I post no one wants to comment on it.

What would it take?  What do you want to discuss about the arts?  Why are you even in the arts?  Does it have any special meaning to your life?  What if all the arts funding in and out of academia were cut?  Would you be concerned then?

Why don’t we speak up? Arts are important!

May 9, 2010

I find it fascinating, or perhaps I should say odd, that we are all very concerned about arts programs being cut around our region and yet we fail to say anything.  So often we, as artists, believe that our art should speak for itself.  Others I have talked to say they are visual artists and wouldn’t know how to articulate the importance of the arts.  I believe if we don’t start learning how to speak up then the arts will continue to disappear.  Or perhaps you think the arts are not really worth fighting for?  

Recently I have been appointed as the new chair of the Arts Council at Boston College.  My tasks will include promoting and enhancing the arts on our campus.  I will have to articulate to our administration why we need support, space, better marketing and other resources.  I will dive into the mission of our school and elaborate on how the arts fulfills our mission in unique and indispensible ways.  I will talk about quality, artistic excellence, student formation and other key phrases our university likes to toss around as they try to figure out what they mean. I will have to serve as an advocate to the arts to people who, much like you, feel the importance of the arts should be self-evident simply because we have chosen to pursue the arts ourselves.  

Well I can tell you now that the meaning of the arts is typically lost on those who have never experienced them.  We must be the voice for the arts in academics.  We must speak out against the cuts and bruises the arts programs are enduring.   If we do not speak out in unison, there will be no one to speak out to your institution when your job is cut.

Check out this article on the University of Maine’s proposal to cut foreign language, music and theater.

Or this WBUR article on cutting the graduate theater design program:

Photos of The Three Penny Opera

April 28, 2010

Production photos of the Boston College Three Penny Opera:

  • Director:  Stuart Hecht
  • Set Design: Crystal Tiala
  • Light Design:  Kenneth Helvig
  • Projection Design:  Seaghan McKay
  • Costume Design:  Jackie Dalley

production photo

production photo Three Penny Opera

production photo of Three Penny Opera

The chasm between professional and academic

April 20, 2010

John’s comment was so provocative that I felt the need a new post instead of a mere comment in return. I agree that bad teachers in theater are a disservice to arts education, but bad teachers are a disservice to any field they teach.

It is true, more often than not, that academic institutions do not value professional people as educators particularly in liberal arts institutions. Nor do universities allow artists much time to be professional outside of their teaching duties. My husband, a scientist and professor, sees the same type of bias towards researchers from industry when they apply for to be professors. Originally, I came from a professional free-lance set design career and now I am an associate professor teaching in a liberal arts university. It has been a huge learning curve for me in the past eleven years.

The conservatory schools/technology institutes and the liberal arts schools simply run on different models with different missions.  Unlike conservatory schools, liberal arts institutions are less interested in teaching skills, what most of us would consider necessary, and more interested in phrases like ‘critical thinking,’ ‘creative thinking,’ ‘student formation’ and ‘citizenship.’ Can one happen without the other? I doubt it. However, the performing and fine arts at my school have evolved in a very peculiar way that separates ‘doing’ from ‘thinking,’ a distinction I have struggled to fight all my years here. Chances are, if you create art, you are an activity. If you study art, then you are an academic. Nothing frustrates me more than to see these two worlds struggle to coexist on our campus because invariably the ones who create, the ones who have a Masters degree as their terminal degree, do not get as much respect or compensation as those who research the creators, those with a PhD.

I also must remember that a university is a business with a business model/mission that they must sell to students and to donors. Part of my job as a professor is to see that what I teach fits the mission of the university. So, I spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to others on campus why art and performance is scholarship of a uniquely beautiful construction because critical and creative thinking are inherent in the process and consequently the formation of the students is heightened by the fact that they are so immersed in their creative work. It takes a lot of time and effort on my part to find the right approaches that will resonate with the administrators. (This is the main reason I began this blog – to hear how everyone else approached the same issues.) Now, if the arts brought in a lot of money to the university, I am sure administrators would validate the artists/performers a lot quicker.

So how do we “deal with this disconnect” as John puts it? Do we revolutionize the entire liberal arts education? Do we spend our time justifying ourselves and trying to prove that we are every bit as scholarly as the rest of the professors even if our final outcome is not a publication? Do we all just join conservatory schools? And is it something that we do together or something that you expect someone else will take care of?

Please, everyone, let’s hear what you have to say.

Arts – Creative Thinking – Higher Education

April 18, 2010

The arts in higher education is a means to resurrect creative and innovative thinking.

When I went to high school a few decades ago my eduction was full of great choices for classes and after school activities. I enrolled in what I was interested in and, although I knew I needed good grades to pursue the best schools in my future, I did not consider how all my choices would affect my ability to be admitted into universities. In fact, good grades seemed to be enough.  Nowadays, high schools have become a boot camp for college admittance. They funnel students into a series of steps that include standardized testing, AP courses, heavy after school participation and service. All these may or may not be good experiences, but the formulaic processes that they imprint upon the students  leaves them ill-equipped for creative thinking in the classroom in college.  They are afraid to take risks, make mistakes and can memorize a book chapter easier than they relate to their own opinions and feelings.  They are  quite good at doing what they are told to do but rarely are adept at independent thinking.

I have often been frustrated as a teacher that I must spend so much time trying to pry out opinions, feelings or other creative thoughts from my students in the classroom.   I once had a student offer to write a 20 page paper instead of doing the actual assignment – a thumbnail sketch.  No doubt the paper would have been a dull regurgitation of some facts.   What was the student afraid of?  Afraid they were not the best artist?  Afraid to fail at something?  Could they not create something that came from their heart?  I believe many of my students think this way.

Teaching scenic design in the theater can be very challenging.  I am asking a lot from  students who are terrified that there are no right or wrong answers.  They must critic work and discern what is bad, good and great design.  They must form opinions on the plays they read, learn to express themselves visually and articulate why visual images impact them in a variety of ways.  They must be keen observers of the world, empathize with characters foreign to themselves and fill an empty stage with visual objects that convey an idea to a public they may not even know.   It is a lot to ask of students who sometimes say, “just tell me what to do and I will do it.”  

Once you leave high school, life no longer offers you a step by step guidebook.  You must think for yourself.  You must choose your mentors and find your own resources.  When you take a class in scenic design  or any of the studio and performing arts, you  must consider the full implication of what you present to the world.  You must discern what has meaning and what is your own true voice and style.  No longer propped up by the establishment, you become an independent, creative thinker.  And this is the true value of arts in higher education.

Seriously, is this art? What do you say when the performance was truly bad?

April 17, 2010

I went to an event on our campus tonight.  A poet with some impressive awards read one of her poems while two guys, perhaps they called themselves actor/artists, moved a small hand-held camera around a bunch of toys and rope  and projected it up on a wall.  I am sure being the academic event that it was, that there was some intellectual explanation for why this was interesting.  I am sure their explanation  included ‘making the audience look at the world from new perspectives’ and ‘challenging what we think art is,’ but I could not have been more unengaged.   I felt bad for the poem that the amateurish antics of two guys and a camera took my attention away from what might have otherwise been a good experience listening to the poetry.  I don’t know.  I was more interested in what was happening outside the window than what was going on in the room.

It made me ask many internal questions….. because I tend to be far too polite to say them out loud.

Are other people in the room enjoying this?  Or are they being polite, too?

Why did the organizers of this event pay good money to bring them here?  Did they really think this was worthy of academic discussion and praise?  Or are they thinking what I am thinking?

Do you think the actors go home and laugh at our school for paying them money to do this?

When do you think it is safe to leave without looking like a jerk?  Or is it bad enough to not care that I look like a jerk?

After I left, which was just after the poem stopped and before the questions began, I was so relieved to be out of there.   I suppose everyone still there remained really polite and no one asked them if they were really serious.  That would have been my question.  “Is this a joke?”  And everyone would have glared at me like I suddenly sprouted a third head.  So I left instead.

On the way to my office I began to wonder if this is why the arts are struggling across the country.   Too many people are creating what they call ‘art’ and really they are just horsing around with a camera.  How could anyone take art seriously after that? Who would want to fund it?   Or do people just go around and wonder if they are not smart enough to understand it?   Maybe artists make art that is totally inaccessible so everyone thinks that they know things that no one else knows.   If it is totally incomprehensible, then it must be good art, right?

Then I began to wonder what I would say if people asked me if I enjoyed it?  Do come up with some polite answer?  Really, I don’t lie very well and I feel bad about doing it.  I actually feel worse about giving a compliment that is a lie than the truth that hurts.  Can I sugar coat it somehow?   Often I reframe things for my students to be really constructive so they can improve their artistic work.  I would find something good to say about what they did and then list the items they need to work on.

In a professional performance, however, you don’t get to work on it and it is not a work in progress for the people on the stage.  Apparently, they think this is finished.  And what would I say worked well?  Well, I could say they had a good crowd.   (I think any crowd that didn’t walk out on the middle of that was at least overly polite.)   After that  I am at a loss for something nice.

Here is hoping none of my colleagues asked me what I thought of it.