!nsp!re – 2013 Cal State Thespian Festival

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!

intervYOU – Steve Hodowsky, Painter

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.

Steve and Sallie at Signal Theory
Steve and Sallie at Signal Theory

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.

Crenshaw - Steve Hodowsky
Crenshaw – Steve Hodowsky

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.

Steve Hodowsky
DJ – Steve Hodowsky

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!

How so?

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.

Orange - Steve Hodowsky
Orange – Steve Hodowsky

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!

West LA - Steve Hodowsky
West LA – Steve Hodowsky

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.

 

Thanks so much to Steve for sharing some insight into his work. To see more of Steve’s paintings, you can visit SteveArts. Click here for more information about Signal Theory.

 

!nsp!re – Go. Do. Create.

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.

So go. Do. Create.

!nsp!re – PAPERMAN, A Groundbreaking New Animation Technique

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.

"PAPERMAN"

PAPERMAN

!nsp!re – Ken Robinson on Schools and Creativity

“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.

Enjoy one of my favorite TED talks here.

intervYOU – Alex Goldberg, Playwright

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.

Alex Goldberg (photo: Katherine Bryant)
Alex Goldberg
(photo: Katherine Bryant)

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.

"America's Brightest Star" 2012Megan Tusing, Catia Ojeda, Jeffrey Wolf
“America’s Brightest Star” 2012
Megan Tusing, Catia Ojeda, Jeffrey Wolf

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.

"It Is Done" 2011Catia Ojeda, Ean Sheehy, and Matt Kalman(photo Jen Maufrais Kelly)
“It Is Done” 2011
Catia Ojeda, Ean Sheehy, and Matt Kalman
(photo Jen Maufrais Kelly)

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!

To keep up with Alex, please visit his website here.

!nsp!re – Top 10 Skills Children Learn from the Arts

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.

Click here to read the story.

intervYOU – Anne Caruthers, Choreographer and Creative Director

We kick off the first of the intervYOU series with a special treat. Anne Caruthers is the President and Creative Director of “Dance From The Heart”, a Texas-based, non-profit, multi-cultural dance organization. Anne and I have known each other for a long while but fell out of touch when I moved to California. We reconnected several years ago on Facebook and it was fascinating to see how life has changed each of us; though the kernel of our initial connection has remained intact. I think her interview is a wonderful window into a creative soul powered by the desire to give.

Anne on stage in Hayati
Anne on stage in Hayati

So, we’re going to start off with some background – tell me how you became inspired to dance.

I wanted to dance since childhood, but never had the “build” for ballet.  I took the path of music and theatre instead, which I also love.  When I began dancing as an adult in a multi-cultural form, what I consider the “harsher rules of the ballet world” didn’t apply.  I was a stay at home mom that had an 11 month old toddler, and I desperately needed adult interaction.  I saw an advertisement for a belly dance class, and I went.  I fell in love with the form, and in six months I was performing with the studio’s dance company.  Looking back, it was WAY too soon for me to be performing, but my stage experience made up for my lack of crisp technique.

And with that, was there some sort of “a-ha” moment?

I think there was, yes.  I listened to so many dancers complain about not being taken seriously because they weren’t ballet/modern/contemporary dancers.  I listened to the people that saw “belly dance” shows and heard their reactions.  I was continually exposed to the misconceptions about this dance and understood how they came to be.  While in conversation with my (now ex) husband one day, it all came together – an a-ha moment of how to incorporate all of my passions (music, dance and theatre) in a way that would potentially make this form of dance more accessible and acceptable to the general public down here in the land of conservatives.

Once you realized you loved performing and creating, what happened?

I actively pursued it on every front.  There were certainly times that I STOPPED pursuing certain aspects when they just didn’t feel right, didn’t fit into my life, etc. but when I was engaged in something creative, it was absolutely with intent and purpose.

Were your parents on board with this?

My mother always encouraged me on every front.  She signed me up for piano lessons, voice lessons and acting lessons, but I had to beg for them.  She wanted to make sure I really wanted it first.  She attended every event, every recital, every play… she never missed a performance of mine unless she was out of the country or ill.  My father supports me now, but wasn’t so excited about my having a career in the arts – it was too risky and not stable enough in his mind.

Alright, so at that moment in time we have a young girl who is young and passionate with the beginnings of some training. How did you expand your training?

I attended theatre classes at the Alley Theatre, took voice lessons with Bettye Gardner here in Houston (also one of my instructors at the Alley), took piano/guitar/banjo lessons throughout my childhood/adolescence, played and sang with local bands and finally began belly dance lessons, followed by Latin Ballroom, Ballet and Flamenco lessons.  I have studied my chosen form of dance with instructors from the Middle East, N. America, Canada and Europe.  I have collaborated with other dancers in different dance forms and continue to interact with and learn from everyone with whom I work.

Is there any correlation between the things you did as a child that relate to your career as an adult?

I was always a ham… would jump at the opportunity to be the center of attention, and was spoiled rotten.  I was obviously ready to perform at a young age, and was drawn to comedy.

Through all of that, was there a teacher that inspired or influenced you?

There is – Ken Dyess (at John Foster Dulles High School in Stafford, Texas) influenced me heavily. He was one of those teachers that could get kids to work for him.  He inspired fierce loyalty and a desire to please, and was a tough love kind of teacher/Director.  My favorite memories of working with him were during “Charley’s Aunt”, for which I was the AD.  I learned a great deal going through the process with him, understanding how he staged, how he got what he wanted from his actors, etc.  Being the ear that heard his comments about what was happening onstage was instrumental to my own Directorial style.  Understanding what he saw and how he saw it … “getting into his head”, essentially, was better instruction than any class.

Well as far as influences go, it seems like you’ve had quite a few good ones. Could you name three people that have made a deep impact on you and describe how they did that?

My father instilled in me a strong work ethic.  When I was younger, it seemed I was in constant conflict with him.  As I have aged, I understand him better and appreciate the lessons he has taught me – even the hard ones I didn’t like very much.  Now, he is my hero.  He has exhibited selflessness I never thought he had and a depth of love I try to give and hope I inspire.  He’s not perfect… but I love him in spite of his serious character flaws (meaning that he doesn’t agree with every word that comes out of my mouth).

My mother passed away in 2009 from Alzheimer’s.  She is the primary reason I do what I do.  From my earliest childhood, she told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, could do anything I worked to accomplish.  I never doubted her, and because of that have attempted things that I probably wouldn’t have dared otherwise.  When I start my creative process for a new project (no matter how big or small), I never forget her words.  I always strive to do what would make her proud of what I’ve produced, and it is always in honor of her memory.

My Aunt (my father’s sister) passed away on my birthday in 2010, after an extended bout with Leukemia.  My Aunt was the picture of grace in this world.  Oh, she wasn’t inhumanly perfect or anything – she was stubborn, she had a temper, and she used some awfully colorful language on occasion.  She was the most giving (and FORgiving), generous, patient, loving soul I have ever known.  She was strong in her faith, and suffered more hardship than just about anyone I know except her daughter, who has had to deal with everything she did, but also had to live through her mother’s passing.  Her spirit, while sometimes battered, was never broken.  I think of her whenever I consider the people we are trying to help.  I think of her when I get frustrated with the process or an individual and start losing patience.  I put her foremost in my thoughts when creating a piece about love, faith, hope or loss as an example of how her grace made such a difference in her life, and in the lives of those around her.  If I need to approach the darker side of those topics, I think of her polar opposite.

It’s surprising and humbling the ways in which families make their mark on us. How about other artistic influences?

There is a wonderful dancer in Indiana – Leila Gamal.  She made the biggest impact on me of any dancer to date.  The moment I saw her move, I was completely captivated.  Even 20 years later, she has the presence to make the rest of the room disappear when she dances.  Earthy, fluid, beautiful, powerful, grounded, unstinting, undeniable… that is how I would describe her in dance… all that and more.

And what inspired you to found Dance From The Heart? How did that come about?

I’ve spent a lifetime organizing events.  I don’t think I ever realized it until I had to start thinking about what all I had done. Just after the tsunami in 2005, a group of dancers around the US wanted to do something to help the survivors. We decided to use our talents to raise money for the relief effort. When doing so, questions would come up about how to do different things… how to write press releases, how to get logos, how to set up a website, how to get sponsors, etc. I was answering the majority of the questions, and willing to do a lot of work to get things moving… and I just happened to have the skills to do it. It was familiar territory.  Everyone kept saying, we need to make this a non-profit. So, I did the research and figured out what needed to be done. Once the initial event was finished, I was ready to keep going… no one else was.  I found two partners that were willing to split the start-up costs with me, and we put the application together. It was a TON of paperwork, but we managed to get it done.  We put our first full scale production on stage two years after the tsunami benefit. The biggest challenge is finding people that are willing to put more time and effort in than they’ll ever get back, and still do the work required to get the job done.

What’s happening with the company currently?

We are currently working on what I call Domari Deux.  I am restaging our 2011 production, ‘Domari’, after many requests for repeat performances.  I’m adding scenes we were unable to finish the first go ‘round, and making changes to choreography that I felt didn’t work. We are currently scheduled for six shows over the first two weekends in November of this year.  And then the next show I have in planning (for 2014) is a complete fantasy, unlike Domari, which was historical fiction. The concept name for the show is Ethereality, and is the story of elemental spirits mucking about in the lives of humans, and the mess that comes from it. It will be the most ambitious project to date, but it is likely to be the dancers’ favorite.

Has there been a moment you would describe as your first “big break”?

Not yet. It seems so close, I can almost taste it.  We’re working SO hard, and the signs are there. It’s so maddening when people say things like, “What you are doing is different than anything I‘ve seen, and it’s wonderful.” I say that, because:  while those comments are so hugely appreciated and are the lifeblood that validates what we’re doing, we constantly wonder how to get that message to the people that have the ability to help us get to the next level.

It’s so tough for any arts organization to break through. There’s a lot of competition for patron attention and dollars these days.

For a non-profit, the bottom line is always funding the vision. Quality isn’t cheap. We want to succeed artistically, but we also have a philanthropic mission driven by our productions – we want to make an impact… to be a significant contributor to our beneficiaries. The non-profit is currently full of volunteers that work their asses off simply for the joy of creating, and to help those that we select as our beneficiaries. I work a full time job in technology (and most of us do work in the business sector full time on top of this). I do this because I believe in it, because I want to make a difference, and because I have more fun with these people than anywhere else outside of my relationship with my Favorite Man. All of the performers and technicians involved in this donate their time and talent to these performances and rehearsals.

Anne in rehearsal
Anne in rehearsal

Okay, so let’s talk about your process a little bit. What inspires you to create?

Music – it’s always about the music for me.  The music creates the story in my brain, and they both drive the movement that tells the story.

I agree completely. So much of what I do is driven by music as well, which I love. Once the music starts happening, what’s next? How does that unfold?

I often create alone. Choreography happens in odd places – the car, at home by the computer, in the studio… sometimes in the bloody grocery store.  What I’ve discovered in the last two years is how much I enjoy collaboration, when the mix of collaborators is just right.  I brought in an Artistic Director (Kim Piwetz) in 2011.  I create the vision, she helps implement it.

Kim and I, though she is about 17 years younger than me, seem to be on the same twisted wavelength.  We get together in a studio and first discuss the concept of the piece.  I’ll play the music for her and describe the story that I see evolving from the musical theme.  Next, we start documenting so that we don’t forget any of our brilliant ideas.  We listen to the music again and I go through moments of specific action/movement I have in my head while she notes those points on her snazzy Alienware laptop, over which I have geek envy.

Once we get through the song and I’ve given her the outline, we focus on the movement vocabulary I’ve already set.  I teach her what I have already worked out, let her know where I am not happy with my choices, or have ideas for something that I haven’t pinpointed yet.  That’s where the fun begins. We start breaking down the areas where I’m looking for improvement, and essentially play around with movement until something clicks.  Our dance backgrounds are similar, but have strong enough differences that we both know things the other doesn’t, making the creative process also a learning one.  We definitely feed off of each other. One of us will start a section, the other will do something that blends, and between the two we come up with the final landscape. Once we have the movements mapped and noted, we run it over (and over and over) and fix whatever still doesn’t work.

I really enjoy this process with Kim.  She’s amazingly talented, intelligent, outspoken and keeps me laughing during stressful times with her completely inappropriate and utterly delightful sense of humor.  And, she keeps me in check (and the dance company) when I decide to not follow my own choreography.  I couldn’t have purposefully planned for a better “Second in Command” for the production side of this endeavor.  She has become one of my closest friends, and I wouldn’t want to do this without her.  She can’t ever leave.  I’ll handcuff her if I have to.   She knows.  Her husband approves.

Is there some part of the process you dislike for any reason?

My least favorite part of the choreographic process is the notation.  It’s difficult to put three dimensional movements on paper in a way that makes sense to everyone that has to use it.

Knowing that creating can also bring stress, how do you typically deal with those moments when things are going smoothly?

It depends… sometimes we just take a break.  My stress is usually in rehearsal, when working with 10 – 20 people (dancers, musicians, actors).  I try not to yell, though on occasion that has occurred when someone is talking instead of listening (which will piss me off faster than just about anything, and they know it).  When I’m seriously stressed, I tend to get quiet.  If my voice gets low, and I speak in very measured tones, the dancers that have been with me the longest know that it is time to be very, very good.  Mostly, I try to talk to those closest to me… those on my board that are in it with me and have an equal stake in the outcome.  I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful group of people to work with – we complement each other in skill and personality, and we seem to know when to vent and when to support while someone else is dealing with stress.

I hear you on the “when my voice gets low part”. I’m not a yeller either – it’s when I get quiet that people start scurrying. Okay, speaking of stress, though, has there been a time that you believe you failed or made a significant mistake?

Oh, goodness… I have made a lot of mistakes – it’s the most important part of the learning process.   I think that I have been fortunate that none have been so significant that my career was jeopardized.  However, each mistake, while different, came back to the same realization.  Surviving the mistakes has made me calmer, even though it also raises awareness of not making the same mistakes again.

And what have you learned from those mistakes?

Stay true to the vision, even when you feel uncertain and insecure about something that’s “outside the box”.  NEVER compromise on delivering the highest level of achievable quality.  If people are investing time in you, they are doing it for a reason – trust in that, and in your instincts.  You may fall flat on your face occasionally, but you have to in order to grow.

You mentioned earlier that you work in the technology. What’s your “day job”?

Call me Ms. Disaster Recovery.  I work for a large chemical company as their Disaster Recovery Manager.  I deal with business continuity and recovery of data centers after critical incidents occur (loss of the data center due to natural or manmade disasters).

Is it challenging to balance the demands of your career(s) with the responsibilities of family?

Absolutely. I want to do too many things at once. I want to be with my honey, Paul, but I would also like to be at the studio taking a class or working on this next bit of choreography. And then there are rehearsals as we get closer to show time. When I do have actual time off, Paul and I love to try new restaurants, catch a movie, go out and spend time with his parents in the country, or just stay at home and read.  Our library is extensive, and it’s a hobby all on its own, I suppose. I’ve TRIED to get Paul to start dancing, but trust me; he isn’t having any of it.

Knowing Paul as well, I have to thank you for the mental visual on that… Going back to technology, I’m wondering what technologies you employ to be creative?

The Adobe suite helps a lot – I can edit music with Soundbooth, map out choreography movement in Photoshop, we can do our own video editing with Vegas Pro.  My Sony HD video camera allows me to record rehearsals and publish the footage privately on YouTube for dancers to use as a learning tool outside of our studio time.  It also gives me a way to understand where the weak spots are for everyone, which I can’t always see while I’m leading the rehearsal and teaching.  While these things speak to efficiency, they also speak to a new approach for our process, that we didn’t have the ability to utilize even 10 years ago because of the price point.  In addition, we can now use projected backdrops instead of going through the time and expense of having them painted.  For the next two years, I have an artist friend that will create digital images for projection.  It takes him less time to create on his digital drawing tablet and costs us all far less from a materials perspective.  We have technical concerns with regard to shadows, but we’re working through that in our new venue with more modern technology capabilities.

Very cool. Alright I have a few wrap-up questions for you. Out of your career achievements thus far, which are you the most proud of?

It would have to be the staging of ‘Domari’ in 2011.  It was such a huge risk, and it was the make it/break it point for Dance from the Heart.  I am so grateful that the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Anne on stage
Anne on stage

Aside from your creative field, what else are you passionate about?

Patient advocacy, caregivers and how to provide help to those that sacrifice time from their own lives to care for someone else.

What sort of activities/hobbies outside of your career interest you?

Cooking – it was a business for a while, and I still cater for some friends on occasion.  Though I don’t play much anymore, music is still a big interest – just in a different way.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

Push your boundaries, don’t settle for less than you think is right, don’t make snap judgments without a conversation first, and don’t panic when your past catches up to you – it’s not always a bad thing!

Where do you see multi-cultural dance in ten years?

With the ever increasing Western influence on Middle Eastern Dance, I see the fusion continuing and the art form being more theatricized (I just made that word up, thank you).  There will always be cultural purists (with whom I have no argument – I started that way, and continue to be true to the cultural roots of the dance when the performance calls for it), but the need to express beyond one movement vocabulary is increasing, not decreasing.  The fusionists are still testing the boundaries, so we’re going to see some really interesting things come in the next ten years.

What qualities should someone possess to be successful in your line of work?

Beyond skillset…for my job specifically, I would say a strong desire to help others… to make a difference; the ability to share what you are passionate about openly; to build relationships with a wide variety of people; and the desire to work very hard for an uncertain return, because you love what you do… not because you will become rich doing it.

What do you feel you have to offer those who will come after you in the way of advice?

I would say the same thing to them that my mother said to me.  You can be anything you want, and do anything you desire if you apply yourself.

Thanks to Anne for an in-depth look into her creative life. To learn more about Dance From The Heart, click on the image below.

DFTH Logo

LAUNCHING JANUARY 2013

Stay tuned. In January 2013 – cre8tivitylab will be online.

I’ve tried blogging before. They say “blog what you know”. I searched online and found blogs I liked and followed. I tried to get a sense of where there were gaps and what I might bring to the table. Then I tried blogging about photography, and I tried blogging about lighting and projection design. But I found that while doing those things inspires me, writing about doing them doesn’t. The thing that is at the center of all of my passions is creativity and I love thinking and talking about THAT. The other thing I realized was that, for me, the best blogs aren’t necessarily about the blog writer, they’re about the blog’s subjects.

cre8tivitylab will be a site about people who live a creative life. Most people interpret that to be drawing, or acting, or singing, painting, designing, dancing, directing, sculpting, writing – and people from those fields (and quite a few others) will all appear here; but it’s really about more than that – it’s about the creative spark, the urge, the desire, the passion. What drives artists to create? To contribute? To connect? To share?

Blocked? Check out the !NSPIRE section. !NSPIRE will feature articles that are meant to get your creative juices flowing again or to perhaps expose you to a different way of thinking.

Curious? Click over to intervYOU. I’m very excited about this section; featuring interviews with creatives from all walks of life, at various stages of their careers. Learn how they got started, what inspires them, how they implement their creativity and a lot more. These aren’t glossy press bios. These are in-depth interviews, allowing you to get a sense of the artist and what they’re about.

Overwhelmed? Check out DO. You can dream all you want, but at some point you have to get started. This section will feature articles about how artists manage their time and get their work done.

So please join me – I’m excited about this venture and can’t wait to share it with you.

go. do. create.

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