You know that feeling when something just… bugs you?
In that way where it’s not a huge deal, not enough to really even know exactly what about it irritates, but it a fact just rubs you wrong each time you hear it?
I get those little inklings once in a while when I hear about certain artistic projects happening out in the Philly sphere. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which ones will they will be. But they are things that from first mention just make me itch. They leave a sour taste. They make my nose wrinkle. And recently I’ve tried to unpack those little pin pricks a bit to figure out what it is about them that creates that feeling.
Ok, long intro aside, I’ve been writing here long enough that hopefully you readers know that I care a lot about the art that happens here in my community. And if you read this blog you know that I am, almost always, for more work from more kinds of people. But there are just some projects that I hear about and get this negative vibe from. My guess is that anyone with a high level of skill in an area has feelings like this about certain kinds of creative endeavors.
Mine come when I hear about companies that are creating new devised or generative works for the first time. This is almost exclusively linked to full productions from companies that have not established themselves as devisors in the past. When I hear that company X that usually does this or that semi-traditional cannon work is doing a “devised” show I have this weird itch. It’s a gut feeling and it makes me turn my head to the side and squint a little. It makes me just a bit annoyed.
I don’t get upset in the same way when I hear about companies doing killer work I wish I were doing. I don’t get that way when I hear about new up and coming companies fresh out of the box. It’s something to do with relatively established, usually working the traditional mode, folks who out of the blue decide they’re doing this thing that I do all the time.
Why is that? Is it jealousy? Competitive fear? Haughty condescension? I don’t claim to be above any of those things. But I really don’t think that’s what it’s about.
Here’s what I do think it is: There’s learning and then there’s doing.
Learning is for us, the makers. Learning is the way in which we experience ourselves opening, vulnerable and hopefully awakened with a new methodology. It is the space in which we find room to grow. Learning is mostly a private affair because the real beneficiary is us, the learner.
Doing is the opposite. Doing is the ways in which that thing that we have learned and grown is implemented and displayed, put forward and adorned in front of an audience. It is about skill and virtuosity and execution. Doing is performance. And doing is about the viewer because we’re doing it for them.
In every artistic endeavor we are likely engaging in a bit of both. When we start out, we are doing very little doing and learning an awful lot. And the doing we do is mostly in service of the learning. In these early stages, when we do the doing for people, they know we’re just starting, it’s generally understood to view the thing through that lens.
As we grow older, as we become “professionals” there are fewer spaces for learning. We become doers, sometimes to a deadening degree. It’s understood that what an audience sees is doing without quotations. We take that caveat off our performances. And that means an audience can look at the thing with the understanding that this is mostly for them.
I am for learning. I am a believer in continuing the educational process. And In almost all of my creative works I build time set off from the making (the doing) of the play for the group to explore uncharted territory. This is usually called exploration, but it might as well be called learning. It’s the time when I give us room to grow that new growth without having to support the weight of doing it for a viewer.
In other words, when I start a new project, I make sure to find time for us to learn before we have to do.
I do that because devised work, by its nature, is a learner’s game. The piece does not exist. And in the same way a playwright needs time and space to learn about the world he’s writing, generators in a room together when they first start doing something, need way more time to learn what’s happening, what they’re going to do.
And I like the idea that people would want to engage in that process. I want more theater that is made this way. Which is why I especially like inviting in people who’ve rarely created that way to do it with me.
What I do have trouble with is when learning is sold as doing. And this, I think, is where the itchy feeling comes in. While I always include some amount of learning in a process, I know that I need less of it than I used to. Because I’ve been doing it long enough to know when I can accelerate or anticipate certain things I’ve learned about doing. And I have a pretty good guess when others can’t.
The thing that’s tricky about trying something new that is similar but not the same as something you’ve been successfully doing is remembering that the new thing is actually new. That it’s a thing you don’t know how to do as completely, that you haven’t yet learned all the ins and outs of doing.
That the ratio of learning to doing that you’ve been operating on with the thing you do know how to do is not going to be applicable for the new thing you’re learning about doing. And that means that you need to give yourself more time to be in learning mode before you start doing it in front of people. And I think the itchy feeling comes when I sense that a project hasn’t made enough room for the learning. I know how hard devising is. I know how long it takes. I have a pretty good sense of the effort and skill needed to actually do it. Which means that I can sense when something is about to be shown as a thing “done” that is actually a thing that is still being learned.
It’s not just that I don’t want to see bad work (which I don’t). But I see bad work all the time. No, in this case the niggling feeling is tug of the mama bear. I am feeling protective of my craft. And I think generative creation really is a quite different skill than interpretive theater. Making a thing and enacting someone else’s thing are not the same. We cringe at a movie in which a basketball player mistakes sports fame for an ability to do any craft that involves performance in front of an audience. And in the same way, I sometimes worry that people don’t realize when they decide to devise that what they’re doing is a learned skill.
In the learning of my craft I have had so many opportunities to be a beginner. I had so many tiny steps along the way, small showings, little audiences, chances to build my skill incrementally. I don’t know any serious deviser that began with a full-fledged production. And I fear that those who attempt to do so will think the fault is in the medium and not in the desire to jump to the end of a series of steps in a developmental learning process. I fear people will assume that these methods new to them are not as good as the ones they’re used to without realizing that it may be because they are not as good at using them. I fear it will sour people that might be open to learning such things away from doing them successfully in the future.
I fear that not only will creators misunderstand, but that audiences will too. That they will see under-prepared, under-qualified work and think this is doing when what they are actually seeing is pretty raw learning. And I fear that because there’s no one to explain what they’re seeing it will do a disservice to the work on a larger level, make them ask for the same old “play plays” the company did last season.
I have been in devised work that did not get the allotted time or skill to be successful. And because such work demands that everyone be involved a lot more closely, I think it’s that much more painful when it fails. I hate hearing people talk about such disasters. It brings me close to saying things like, “Those people shouldn’t be doing this kind of work.”
Which isn’t totally true. They can. Eventually. If they take the time to learn.
There are actors who are so effortless in their doing, so complete in their learning that it seems like magic. It’s easy to imagine an unknowing audience member who might think that they too could simply get up and do it. But we “in the know” can see the skill, the deep learning behind what they are doing. And we can be chaffed a little each time someone off-handedly intimates that they could just step into our work with the ease and élan of that same skillful performer.
If that audience member tried to just “do” that same thing, they’d learn rather quickly how much they don’t know.
And I think that’s about the most apt comparison I can make for the itchiness I feel sometimes.
I know there are companies that will try and do it all right out of the gate. And I know that they’re not doing anything maliciously, that they just can’t see the effort that it really takes.
A part of me just wishes they wouldn’t go doing it until they’ve learned a bit more about how.