This week (May 6-10, 2013) is National Teacher Appreciation Week. I had several teachers in my early education that inspired me tremendously. Two of them, perhaps not surprisingly, were art teachers.
In 10th grade, at Pelham High School (in Pelham, Alabama) there was Ms. Martha Doyal. In 11th grade, at Dulles High School (in Stafford, Texas) there was Ms. Maresh.
I bring them both up because I think about the lessons I learned from them fairly often. While I no longer do oil or acrylic painting, or make batik prints, or draw in charcoal or conte crayon; I employ the principles I learned from them on a daily basis. Ms. Doyal questioned and challenged me constantly, in the best way possible. Her questions were designed to make me think; to make me see things more clearly; to drill deep down into the details. Ms. Maresh’s influence was the opposite. She taught me how to lose myself in the work, to not get too deep into the weeds, to feel when the moment was right, and to not accept boundaries (self imposed or external). I do all of those things almost every day. I gauge whether or not I need to get deeper into an issue or whether its best to stay back and view the situation from a wider angle; I ask questions to understand more clearly; I continue to challenge boundaries. The only place I learned how to do these things that I do nearly every day was art class.
There were two other teachers that had a significant impact on my life. One was Ken Dyess, head of the drama department in high school. The other was Jay Burton, my lighting professor in college.
I got involved in drama through my girlfriend at the time (Sara Gaston, a wonderful actress). She introduced me to the “drama jocks”. My background was art; and I volunteered to help paint the set for “Barefoot in the Park”. Through several different conversations, Ken Dyess saw something in me that no one else did; and asked me if I would be interested in trying my hand at designing a set. That initial design gig (for “The Miracle Worker”) allowed me the experience of combining everything I love (art, architecture, and color) into one cohesive whole. Ken Dyess no longer roams the planet but I am eternally grateful that he saw my capabilities where I had no idea they existed.
By the time I headed to college, I really wanted to be a scenic designer. Jay Burton changed that (with a timely assist from The Police Synchronicity Tour, where I first saw moving lights). Through his lens, I learned where my true passion was. Thanks to his classes and his approach, I discovered an endless fascination with light that exists to this day.
The common bond between these four teachers was that they looked at me (and I’m sure their other students as well) and they didn’t see who or what I was at the time. They saw my potential future self. They saw what we could be. And they provided the guidance, the direction, the instruction, and the carefully placed words of wisdom that allowed me to find my own way down the path they could see. They possessed an incredibly powerful gift and they shared it with me; and I’m grateful to them every day for it.
Today, Wednesday, April 24th, marks BY DESIGN DAY, an annual fundraising day for Behind The Scenes (in the U.S.) and Light Relief (in the U.K.).
These two organizations are dedicated solely to assisting entertainment technology professionals in need. Fundraising can be through a personal donation or through an organized collection. Many designers choose to support the cause by giving a days royalties or pay to one or both of these charities. BY DESIGN DAY is supported internationally with donations from designers with productions all over the world. To date, Light Relief has awarded more than 50,000 pounds in grants to help lighting professionals and their families, while Behind The Scenes has issued over $325,000 in grants to professionals working in all disciplines.
Every now and then I find a site on the web that I enjoy enough to bookmark and come back to repeatedly. Design Taxi is one of those sites. This post is from back in December 2012, but I’ve come back to it a couple of times already. Sometimes, the simplest reminders about being creative, or how to maintain your creative output, get lost in the daily grind. You’ll notice that each one of the ten tips in this article start with the word, “connect”.
That’s one of my favorite words. To me – life, the universe, and everything is about connection. Connecting to your goals, your passion, your commitment, your friends, your partner, your family…your life.
Over the weekend of March 22-24, I had the pleasure of being involved in my fourth year of the California State Thespian Festival. This annual event, held for the last two years on the campus of Upland High School in Upland, CA, gathers high-school thespians from around the state for a weekend jam-packed with activities.
For student performers, there are Individual Events in a number of categories (monologue, duet acting scene, etc) as well as workshops taught by pros working in the business, allowing students an opportunity to hone their craft and get some insight to working in entertainment as a career. There are three All-Festival shows, where exemplary scenes from thespian troops around around the state are performed (dance, scenes, musicals, etc). And then there is the All-State show, where students work on a two-act presentation, under the mentorship of seasoned directors and choreographers; building a show in 2 days (from audition to rehearsal to tech to show), then performing it.
For student technicians, there are Individual Events in design, where techs can present their portfolios. Tech Challenge is a competition event where technicians try to best each others time in various competitions based on common practices in props, sound, costumes, and lighting. Student technicians run most of the three All-Festival performances. Interviews are conducted also for tech positions on the All-State show, which is completely run by student techs. This year there were a total of 9 students selected for the lighting crew (out of 38 interviewees): a student designer for each act and separate student followspot operators for the all-state acts and festival performances. These students go to rehearsals, meet with the directors and their student stage managers, and then run their shows. The design students each have a few hours after the rehearsal to design their act, utilizing a very well-equipped rig at the Highlander Auditorium. They each then sit with a programmer for 1.5 hours to get their show programmed. The following morning, the cast and crew get an hour and 15 minutes to tech and run their act. It is a challenging weekend, and is intended to give tech students a taste of what pulling off a real event is like, in an environment that is forgiving of their potential mistakes.
The tech students also attend workshops. Over the past few months I’ve been developing two new workshops and presented them both on Saturday. As each of these workshops is only 1.5 hours long, so the time to truly teach anything in depth doesn’t really exist. For the past few years, I’ve chosen instead to provide overviews for certain aspects of lighting, ask and answer questions, and inspire students to learn more after they return to school.
The first, “Introduction to Lighting Design”, is not exactly what you’d expect from the title (so I’m considering a new title the next time I do this one). This, however, is not an introduction to the nuts and bolts. We don’t cover how to draft a plot, for example. It’s more about the life of a lighting designer and what to expect from a design career, as well as all the places that you can work with an education in lighting design; hoping to get students to see outside the four walls of theatre.
The second is called “Everything Is Designed – Creativity and Collaboration in Entertainment Design”. Taking off from a recently published study about the important skills that art students learn and a recent survey of global CEO’s detailing the qualities they’re seeking most, this workshop discusses how to stoke your creative side. It then touches on the importance of collaboration and offers tips on how to be a good collaborator. It finishes up by providing an overview of all the areas of employment that are open to creatives who have a background in any aspect of entertainment design.
You never really know how new workshops are going to flow until you do them a few times so I’m making some tweaks but overall, I’m really happy with the base ideas and the students seemed to take away more knowledge and inspiration, which is the point after all!
This year, we also resurrected a tech talkback, where future techs and designers can ask questions of an assembled panel of industry veterans. We got a lot of great questions from future theater practicioners.
I saw lots of little light bulbs turning on this past weekend as students learned, made connections, and discovered new things about themselves and their art. Already looking forward to next year!
Today, Steve Hodowosky joins me for a conversation about his work. Along with his wife, Sallie, Steve runs Signal Theory, a boutique advertising agency. He is also a successful painter, having shown in galleries and art shows throughout Southern California.
You know, one of the things that always fascinates me with people who work creatively is what influences them. Can you tell me a little about where your inspiration comes from?
I would characterize my creative influences by saying that I’m kind of like a sponge. I take bits and pieces from everywhere and everything – art, advertising, travels – then process and store them away for later use. Whether it’s graphic design or fine art, it’s all influenced by the world we live in. That being said, I’ll give credit to Ansel Adams, Edward Hopper, Ed Ruscha, Phillipe Starck, Steve Jobs, Catherine Opie, Julian Opie (that’s a bit odd), Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Frank, Natalie Dee, Pokemon, Tibor Kalman, Richard Branson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cindy Sherman, Kelly Wearstler, Kit Kemp, Derek Jeter, Karl Lagerfeld, Jonathan Adler, and my beautiful cats and wife Sallie, without whom I doubt I would never have started painting again; so that’s BIG, yeah.
That’s a diverse and fascinating collection of people. I see the Hopper and Sherman in your work for sure. Tell me a little more about the why behind Richard Branson, Derek Jeter, and Steve Jobs. I think it’s important to be tuned into people outside your field, so to speak, and I’m curious as to what they offer.
I have to say I could list a lot more but let’s just say that Richard; sorry, Sir Richard Branson, is a trailblazer who is always having a good time and genuinely seems to be happy, much like Jonathan Adler. Every time I go in one of his stores his employees are all happy too. There must be something to this. As for Steve Jobs, I can’t imagine a day without an Apple device, can you? For creatives, he changed the way we do business (and live!). And I threw Derek Jeter in there because I’m a huge Yankee fan and he is the captain of so many championship teams – again there must be something to this. He has no bravado, tattoos, and is kinda quiet, yet he still seems to lead…interesting.
Yeah, I’d have to agree and I definitely see the thread that links all of them. Okay, circling back to the beginning, what was life for a young Steve as an artist?
When I was young I would escape my bickering parents by going in my room, closing the door, putting on headphones (Kraftwerk on 8-track – yeah!) and DRAW, sometimes for hours. I would draw anything – animals, sports scenes, design fantasy stadiums – whatever; and it was good. I was blessed with this talent. I got praised in school for it and that was really all it took for me. It’s so important to get that little nugget of praise from the outside world to propel you forward and give you hope. My family did not offer me any artistic vision whatsoever. They lived in a brown house with brown furniture. They were blue-collar and simply didn’t believe you could make a living at “art”. You can’t blame them. Even a career was something out of their realm of thinking. A good job was all one could hope for unless you had a ticket out.
And what was that ticket for you?
I went to “career day” at my high school in New Jersey with my dear departed mother. My art teacher, Mr. Michnowiz, told her that he wanted me to go to New York and apply for a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts. I think she was really surprised by this revelation (and I think I was too!) and she agreed to help me take the necessary steps to get there. I worked some menial jobs to earn the money to go to New York. I bussed tables at IHOP. I put stickers on bottles of nail polish at Revlon. I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could work in such a low-energy environment for their whole lives. I had to get out.
So you made the break and went to New York?
I went to take the test for the few scholarships at SVA that were offered every year. At the time, SVA was not the school it is now. It was really just getting off the ground and was still affordable. So I took my little portfolio and showed it round, took the written test, and low and behold…I missed out on a scholarship. But between my jobs doing paste-up (damn you wax machines!), my mother and I made it work anyway; and off to New York I went.
That had to be a heady experience; to be a young artist, in that time, in that environment…
I’ve always like to watch old movies late at night and my visions of New York were ones stolen from those black and whites, specifically “The Thin Man”. I thought everyone had a fabulous life, in an equally fabulous apartment, wore tuxes at night and wielded martinis. I just had no life skills or experiences to deal with the intensity of New York. I only share this as a cautionary tale of drinking and partying that can lead one off the path of creativity to one of despair. If I made any mistakes in my career, they were due to the excesses of the 80’s which I’ve always joke that I barely survived.
You look back on those sorts of times and shake your head, “What was I thinking?”. I guess those times are a necessary rite of passage for a lot of people. Alright, having survived that, what did the next chapter look like?
After the four years of fun at SVA, I was hired straight away to the Graphic Design department at Citicorp. I had a great office overlooking Central Park, more money than I ever knew, and a slew of new friends. I learned under the tutelage of Jack Odette who was very “Mad Men”. This was my first real job where I had to show up on a consistent basis, 5-days-a-week. I did that for a few years but eventually the nightlife of New York that I previously referred to got in the way, and I was fired.
Ouch. That’s a tough lesson to learn.
I eventually cleaned myself up and re-established my career at some pretty cool agencies like M & Co, Kirshenbaum & Bond, and eventually wound up as Design Director for Margeotes, Fertitta, and Weiss. Then, because I wanted a real change, we moved to LA, and things got even better!
Sallie (my wife) and I started Signal Theory, a small advertising and branding agency in Beverly Hills. We now have a diverse roster of clients including Pokemon, Nintendo, Shopzilla and others. We do a lot of animation as well as print, web, and corporate identity design. We plan on doing this for as long as we possibly can. We’d like to grow to be at least a dozen people full-time, if not more. I really enjoy working with our Pokemon client and they’ve been so loyal to us I have no reason to believe that relationship won’t just continue to grow as we move forward together. We’d also like to expand our client roster to other fields that we enjoy – fashion, travel, pets, etc… so that will be our main focus in the new year.
And when you’re not working, what occupies your time?
We travel a lot. Usually once a month we’re off somewhere to refresh and get a different perspective on things. We love New York, Paris, and London, as well as Hawaii, which is the ultimate recharging station. I also find peace by exercising at the beach. We’re so lucky here in SoCal to have amazing weather and we live just 15 minutes from the Pacific, so we try to take advantage of that beauty on a regular basis.
Indeed. Recharging is so important and it seems like a lot of artists just keep going constantly. You have to re-fuel now and again. Okay, now when you guys started Signal Theory what was that like? Stepping out on your own can be a very daunting thing given the considerable amount of risk.
I was kind of lucky because one of my previous clients handed me an account as I was leaving a previous agency. I had gone freelance with the Nintendo Power magazine Direct Mail account and after doing that for two years the client asked us to stop working on that and launch the Pokemon Trading Card Game. So here we are twelve years later and it’s still a phenomenon, if you’re a 6-12 (or 53!) year old nerdy boy, that is. I don’t know now that I could go back to working for another agency as, say, a Creative Director. It would be hard now after running Signal Theory.
I’m sure it would. I think that’s the case for a number of people who get to a certain stage of their careers. I see people struggle with the idea of “stepping back” quite a bit. Alright, so now, in addition to all of that, you’re also an accomplished painter…
I paint regularly. Every weekday morning I try to do a little bit on a piece. My art is all original oil paintings of urban landscapes and architecture. Lately, I’m also dabbling in some larger scale abstract pieces. It’s just another challenge to think differently. I’m always hopeful of making a connection that will further my exposure to the art loving public. I do show occasionally and have sold over 40 paintings now; but there’s always room for improvement in both technique and sales!
That’s quite a few sales – congratulations. That has to feel good, when your work resonates enough with someone that they take out their wallet and buy it. They are compelled strongly enough to incorporate your artwork into their lives – that’s a powerful thing. So, looking back on those earlier days compared to how things have worked out…
It’s way more creatively fulfilling than I ever imagined. All I wanted was to get out of New Jersey and be an “artist” of some kind. I mean, after all, that’s all I know how to do!
It’s difficult to get that message across sometimes to younger artists, who in some ways are our younger selves – so here’s your chance: Advice for the future?
I would tell younger creative to trust your gut. Don’t go for money right off the bat. Do your own work and good things will follow – I guarantee it. I’d also encourage them to develop a thick skin because they’re going to need it as they meet with rejection of something they’ve created on an almost daily basis. In the end, you have to be true to your inner voice and just forge ahead; no matter if it’s the cool thing to do or not.
Not worrying about what’s cool – I think that’s excellent advice.
Back in November 2012, I did a brief series of posts on Facebook during the week of Thanksgiving. One of those posts in particular was the initial spark for this blog. I have revised some of it for this post:
Creativity, along with the ability to accessorize, is what separates us from animals…
I thought about making this post about “art” but decided to take a step back and go more with creativity. If you’ve never visited TED.com, you really owe it to yourself to do so. I recently posted a link to “Ken Robinson Schools Kill Creativity”. This is an 18 minute TED talk on the topic of creativity and how/why schools educate kids OUT of being creative. Ken Robinson contends that creativity is now as important in education as literacy and it should be treated with the same status. I agree completely.
I also agree with him that creativity is the process of “having original ideas that have value” and that it, “more often than not, comes through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things”. I believe that creativity is a gift; but the beautiful thing about it is that it’s a gift everyone receives. EVERYONE is creative in one form or another. People always confuse creativity with the ability to make art or music. “Well, I’m not very creative. I could never do anything like that.” I call bullshit on that argument.
You may be creative at solving logistical problems, or writing, or seeing problems with complex systems, or matching paint colors to furniture, or looking at financial issues in creative ways, or coming up with new ideas for ANYTHING. Creativity is everywhere and most people use it every day; whether they acknowledge it or not. I think it’s because most people refuse to characterize themselves as artists; again because of the connotation that they don’t paint, or play music, or write poetry, which is what “real artists” do.
Creativity comes in a multitude of forms but is unfortunately often confused with ability. For example, I have learned the skills necessary to paint; but I have no passion to create paintings. I know how to create story structure; but I have no desire to write stories. I am completely and totally in awe of dancers; because they can do things with their bodies that just confound my mind. I have rhythm but my brain is not creative in the way that it allows me to create some of the moves I’ve seen come out of dancers in my life. My creativity does not follow any of those paths. It’s the same with everyone.
And it’s up to everyone to find out where their creativity lies; feed it, indulge it, and listen to it. Let it tell you where to go.
In my work and in my hobby, I hear, “You’re so creative”, “What a creative idea”, “That’s a creative solution”. Hearing those things is wonderful because I’ve worked hard to curate a sense of the world around me and filter the work through it. But I’d be kidding myself to think I’m unique. We are ALL creative – at SOMETHING.
The gratitude you feel from creating something will fill you with light. I absolutely know this to be true.
Take a look at the full animated short feature, “PAPERMAN”, created by Walt Disney Animation Studios. This short introduces a creative new animation technique that merges hand-drawn animation with CGI. The short, from first-time director John Kahrs, is nominated for an Oscar this year. Clicking on the picture below will open a new window and take you to youtube where you can view the short in it’s entirety.
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
I circle back to this particular TED talk every now and again because it resonates to powerfully with me. Sir Ken Robinson, on of my “creativity” heroes, speaks about how our school systems are set up to educate people OUT of being creative as they grow older. It’s a compelling argument and one with which I agree.
In this talk, he also shares a story about the choreographer Gillian Lynne and how her gift of dance was nearly extinguished by an educational system that did not understand the way in which she processed and absorbed information.
Today we welcome Alex Goldberg, a playwright and recent transplant to southern California from New York. I worked with Alex in 2012 on the L.A. production of his play, “It Is Done”, which was recently named one of the best productions in L.A. for 2012 by the Huffington Post. Alex takes some time here to talk about his creative life.
Alright, so let’s start by talking about what you’re up to these days.
My wife and I recently relocated to Los Angeles, so naturally I’m writing more film and TV scripts. In addition to those projects I am also researching and outlining a new play, set in the near future in the Empire State Building. Also, my play IT IS DONE, which had successful productions in New York in 2011 and Hollywood in 2012, is being developed into a motion picture and I am currently negotiating rights to the play in other cities across the country.
Sounds like a lot going on, which is great. Now, have you always been interested in writing?
I stopped acting to focus solely on writing. Until that time I had been splitting my time between acting and writing. Nearly a decade ago I had an extremely busy eight month period in New York, where I co-wrote a musical that opened, and acted in four off-off Broadway plays. At the end of that period I was the lead in one of the plays. We had a matinee show after a typical New York winter night of crappy weather, and there were only three people in the audience. Instead of asking the cast to vote if we should perform, the producers asked the two leads if we wanted to go on. We chose to cancel the show, and the rest of the cast was very disappointed. Even though they all had small to supporting parts, all these people were seasoned actors in their 40s and 50s, and they couldn’t wait for the next time to be on stage. I was half their age and had half their passion for performing; I just wanted to be home and writing. From that point on I stopped going to auditions and focused completely on writing. I still get onstage occasionally to perform comedy, but for the most part that aspect of my career is behind me, and I’ve never looked back.
Were you “bitten by the bug” at any early age?
In first grade I directed a play with my fellow classmates, and starred in it. In third grade I wrote my first play, MOVIE MONSTERS COME ALIVE, and we performed it in class after a week of rehearsal (the script was 2 pages). I was hooked.
It sounds like it! Did you actively pursue the field then?
I did not actively pursue it until after college. I was active in my high school theater, but I did not choose my college based on theatrical desires. However, I immediately fell into a great program at Skidmore, and spent all my available time at the theater. Upon graduation, I actively pursued.
Tell me a little more about your early experience.
I studied theater at Skidmore College. Split my focus between acting and directing, and started to explore writing again. After college after a brief stint in NYC to perform in an off-off-Broadway production of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD I ran out of money and returned to my hometown (Washington D.C. area) and instantly started saving money to return to New York. It took 18 months. During that time I acted in a lot of theater, wrote plays and screenplays, and worked first as an intern and then as an associate producer in production houses. I learned to direct on camera by making industrials, military videos, and corporate documentaries. Then I moved back to New York and started working as an independent film P.A., writing and directing my own short films, and acting.
Were you encouraged/supported by your parents/family in your career choice?
My family is very supportive my writing career and I couldn’t do it without them. However, my mother jokes that when my brother and I were kids she took us to the movies and the theater, and now that we are both writers and directors she wishes she took us to the courthouse instead!
Was there a teacher that inspired or influenced you?
Right before I did this interview I was thinking fondly of Ralph Ciancio, a writing professor in college. He was a former circus gymnast who became an English professor, a Nabokov scholar, cherubic, easy to laugh and destroyed me with my grades. But I kept coming back; he was brilliant and made my writing immensely better. I don’t think I ever got higher than a C+ the first two classes I took with him, but finally wound up with a B. Three times the charm. There were plenty of other good teachers and mentors, but he was on my mind.
Have you had the benefit of being mentored?
When I was an intern in the video department at a PR firm in Washington D.C. I was given a tremendous opportunity. I was the only intern, and there were four directors. Each had a specific skill that set them apart from the others: one was a great writer, one was a visual artist, one was an extremely talented leader with both crew members and talent, and one knew how to make clients and other producers feel like they were in charge of everything – all great skills to learn.
Indeed they are – so now walk me through a “typical” day when you’re in your creative zone.
On a productive day I’m up and writing by 8am. By lunch time if I’ve managed to get in an equal balance of writing, networking, and exercise, then I’ve had a successful morning.
Alright, so it’s lunchtime and we’re looking in the fridge – what do we see?
Lots of kale. Not because we are super healthy, but because we are avoiding eating kale. Also, salsa. Dark chocolate. A few beers (for me) and a bottle of white wine (for my wife). Zevia soda, because it’s “healthier” than regular soda, as I don’t drink coffee but still crave the caffeine.
Zevia, huh? I’ll have to try that – and then how does the rest of the day go?
The afternoon is more of the same, but usually as the day goes on my actual writing productivity decreases. So I continue with busy work.
Given the numerous steps to creating and polishing a script, is there a part of that process that you dislike doing?
The least favorite part of writing is outlining. I come from an improvisational background and like to let my characters create the world for me. In the past I would just write, but that creates more problems in the rewrite process. Now, the tighter and more complete the outline and research, the better the script.
Has current technology enabled you to do your job more creatively?
Absolutely. Dramaturgy and research is instant. If I need to fact check, find a street, come up with the most appropriate character name based on their age and where they are from, then the internet will give me the answer in seconds. As long as I don’t stop to check my email or Facebook…
Facebook: Killer of Productivity… Alright, a couple final questions. Aside from your creative field, what else are you passionate about?
Baseball. Music. Inane trivia. You want me to be your trivia lifeline. My wife and my brother and I have a trivia team named “Two Bros and a Bra.” We have won three straight trivia nights at a local bar. Don’t mess with us.
And what qualities should someone possess to be successful in your line of work?
Self discipline. You have to be a self starter if you want to be a writer. Writing must be treated like any other day job. Most people have days when they don’t want to go to work, but they still have to go in. Even if I don’t want to write today, I still have to go to work.
Very true. Alex, I appreciate you taking the time to share your creative life with us. Thanks so much!
Great post from Lisa Phillips, author of “The Artistic Edge: 7 Skills Children Need to Succeed in an Increasingly Right Brain World”. This ran on the ARTSblog website in November of last year but it’s worth bookmarking and going back to every now and then.
Despite the growing amount of studies that cite the enhanced value to arts education, funding at all levels continue to dwindle, which has potentially negative effects on our ability as a society to deliver well-rounded individuals out into the world who are capable of doing the things Lisa describes in her post.