Something tectonic is shifting.
It’s difficult to articulate the magnitude of the slow but massive moving plate of direction and force I feel. It’s something that says it’s time to let go and ask oneself what I actually want, not what I think I can achieve. Of saying aloud what I truly truly can envision.
Let me back up.
So, it’s been a while my dear friends.
I’ve been caught up in the web of work that distracts and delights. My “life” is in at least three kinds of shambles due to lack of attention. But it’s the kind of whirlwind that I adore. How amusing and ironic it is that just as I start to gain some traction in this space, pick up a bit of speed, find a voice through language that seems to start nibbling on the edges of these issues, the work itself intrudes and demands all of my attention. So I’ve had so many feelings and thoughts about making and doing and what matters over these past few weeks. But the energy that I usually reserve for this endeavor, the space and time to think and carve out reason and lessons from impulse and feeling, is currently directed elsewhere most of the time.
So there’s been a lot to ponder, but little time to share it.
Here’s a bite at least.
I’ve written before about the relentless pursuit of the perfect, about my contentious relationship with potentiality. It has been both a motivator and inhibitor. It was, perhaps is still, a trait that I both love and fear in myself.
Loved because I believed that this need to impress, to perfect, to show the world how amazing a thing I can make was/is the reason I make impressive things. I believed that an instinct that runs far back into me, as far back into the conception of myself as I can remember, must be at the core of the work that I do, that it must be at the heart of the thing.
Hated because it was the same voice that said that no amount of doing was enough, kept me awake in the middle of the night believing I would fail this task while simultaneously shouting that it was too small, too pedestrian, too simple to be worth attempting, and that had I bigger vision, I might pursue an artistic feat more real and true.
And too often what ended up happening was this: the beginning of a work is filled with the elated holiness of that first blush, and over time as the thing came into sharper and sharper focus, it seemed to fade from that Aristotle inspired image of a perfection play that lived in the clouds of my imagination. And it’s apparent to me now that near the end of every major process of the last decade or so, I’ve walked away at the moment of the work’s full birth feeling a bit like a fraud, filled with big words and ideas, and scared that someone will expose me and show that none of them have really made it into the thing itself.
But recently, and it’s been building over time, as I’ve found moments to reconnect with old works, think about what truly brought me joy in them, it strikes me that, no, the ideal that I had in my head was not the thing I wanted and loved about being a creator, but a dolly waived in the face vigorously enough that I was distracted into thinking it the goal.
This current piece in particular, this Tempest, shows more than ever how funny that idea was in the first place.
Perhaps this is news to no one but myself, but there is no such thing as THE Tempest. Certainly not with 6 weeks of rehearsal in a park with little money or people. But even with years and infinite funds and whatever space one could imagine, there is no such thing as a definitive. There is just this Tempest, just a Tempest, that I happen to be working on. A particular work made by a particular group of people based on a particular set of factors that govern how the thing is made. Some of these things we can control. Some we cannot. And while I could lament, if I cared to, about how I might better perfect the process, even if I nothing ever went wrong, even if I had more time or money, even if I never lost a performer to circumstances beyond their control, even if the bounds of physics themselves were magically lifted and anything I could see in my mind were possible. Even if all this were true, it wouldn’t change one basic thing:
At the core, the work is you wrestling it out.
With the need to look beautiful.
With the need to be right.
With the need to impress.
With the need to be known.
With the need to reach out to others.
With the need to be larger than you feel yourself to be.
With the need to say something that matters to the world.
With the need to push sadness away.
With the need to feel at home with others.
With a thousand needs that I cannot imagine that are totally unique to you.
With the need to make something perfect and untouchable that no one can ever criticize.
And whatever of those needs drive our feelings and impulses we are often caught figuring out whether to fight or free them as we make our way through the scene (or song, or paragraph, or whatever). Sometimes that fight can feel like endpoint of the work. But I don’t think it is. It’s never the reason we began our art in the first place.
And, for me anyway, I think I’m seeing that beating oneself up about the distance between the ideal of the thing, the perfect version of The Tempest, or LADY M, or The Ballad of Joe Hill is really not about simply getting to the penultimate amazing version of the show. It’s letting the needs dictate the process.
Because perhaps, if I could just get there and prove the worth of the work, the implicit message is that that need with which I am wrestling will magically quiet. Which is why I keep opening the door to another wrestling match even as I grow weary (and older) and feel a little less ready to duke it out inside myself.
But the voice isn’t so strong any more. And I’m a lot less interested in yelling at myself.
Which at first I feared was a mellowing of the artistic impulse.
And perhaps this is what was so disquieting to me several months back when I despaired about the state of my art and myself in it. Perhaps it’s why I felt so far away from the form and unsure if I could continue. Because the thing I identified in myself as the core of my artistic self, this need to work and work and work towards only this “best” version of a piece, wasn’t sitting right anymore. That voice just made me tired a lot of the time.
And in feeling that, I worried that I was losing the central part of myself that made anything worth anything close to worthy. And I worried that I would give in, and make stuff I didn’t care about. That I would give up and stop making at all. That I would have to concede that the making didn’t really matter.
But I think I was missing the point. That I might not make things that appeased the voice. But I also might get to ask myself what I really wanted out of all this. When I am truthful, when I think about the reasons I actually stay, it is no longer to make a perfect piece. It isn’t really to even impress anyone any more. Those used to be bigger driving forces but I don’t know that they are any more.
And somewhere in the midst of this place, one in which there are so many things I can’t control as I usually do, places where there is no way to keep perfection as an attainable outcome, I realize that I have to ask myself what it is that I actually actually want out of being an artist. And perhaps rather than being dependent on that relentless voice to propel me into success, that perhaps I am actually succeeding in spite of it.
If this work isn’t perfect, but it still feels worth doing, something else must be at play. And I think I’ve honed in on what it might be:
It is the moment when out of nothing, comes something. Whether a room of 4 or 4,000 I am able to witness a birth of sound or movement or word that I didn’t know or only sensed was possible and by helping to direct it, or shape it, or even just witness it I am part of something much greater than the tininess of me. And it can feel perfect in that moment of birth, but the perfection isn’t really the point at all.
It is that in the face of chaos and nothingness and void, there is connection and creation and discovery.
It’s a kind of divinity really.
And I’m learning that it is what in the work actually satiates. Not the most amazing performance, or the most ingenious transition. Because a particular skill or craft does not always equate to genuine creation. Maybe those less practiced in the outcome can actually be a more direct means to find it.
And strangely, in the midst of seeing how joyful I find the moments of that spark in this process in which I am bereft of so many of my usual tricks, I see more clearly the ways in which I am setting myself up to put it lower on the docket of importance.
And so perhaps it’s why I’m coming to this funny cross roads with theater. Because I’m sensing there are ways more efficient to find that spark that ignites through the emptiness. And that the ways that seems most directly plugged into that are more and more looking less and less like a regular process, or theater, or even perhaps “performance” at all.
Like I said, tectonic shifts.
But for now, let’s just enjoy letting the angry perfect voice go in pieces. Let’s enjoy knowing that I cannot give you THE Tempest.
Just this one upcoming, which I think you will enjoy.
Some things I have heard which may speak to your condition:
Our lives in the theater are an on-going attempt to slay our families of origin – Anne Bogart. The deep, familial urges and tides you feel are the reason you are doing this, and your well being depends on your ability to have a sense of humor about it. People ask me why I do what I do and I say, because I need more attention than normal people. They think I’m making a self-depreciating joke. I’m not. I’ve been told art-making is not therapy, to which I reply: bullshit. What saves it from being naked self-indulgence is wrenching the focus off myself and on to all those strangers who are taking two hours (and $20?) our of their lives to see what I have made. When what I am making is absolutely unequivocally for them, then my motives sit comfortably in the silly chair where they belong.
Acting (or theater) is like sex. If you got to bed with your lover, and you are trying to prove to your lover that you are the best lover int he world, forget it. It’s over before it began. But if you go to bed with your lover, and you stay attentive to what’s happening, hey, you might have a good time. No proving anything. Kiss of death – Andrei Belgrader. This has stayed with since they day he uttered these words, or words very much like them, in my third year of drama school. It’s so hard to let go of proving things. But what is there to prove? And who decides?
The longer we do this, the more this question dogs us, the one we avoid by making ourselves busy, drinking too much or becoming obsessed with a person: why are we doing this? It feels like you are on the edge of that question. In my experience, there is no right answer, only your answer, which changes year to year. But what has helped me is holding in love the yin/yang of narcissism and service. It is my narcissism which breeds my art, which I offer to the world as ministry or service.
We are so lucky to have you creating in our midst.