Today, the first day of spring, is also Arts Advocacy Day. In case you’ve missed it, the arts and humanities are on the chopping block in the proposed federal budget.
It comes as no surprise to anyone reading this that I’m a huge advocate for the arts. I found this link incredibly useful in that it offers a variety of ways to reach out, respectfully and thoughtfully, to your representatives. Your reps (remember, they work for US) need to hear from you regarding your opinion on matters that important to you.
If being in band shaped you into a better math student (and it probably did – they’re closely related); if being in theatre helped you overcome a fear of speaking in public; if sculpting helped you decide to become a mechanical engineer – then you benefited from an arts education.
If a play made you think, or a dance made you feel, or a painting made you question, or a symphony made you weep – then you have been touched by the arts.
If those things are important to you, your family, your children, your community, our culture and society, I urge you to connect with your elected representatives and explain specifically WHY it’s important that the arts remain a part of the federal budget.
There are a variety of links on the page that explain in greater detail what I’m talking about. Click on each one to gain a greater understanding of how the federal money is distributed, used, and matched.
In Part I of this post, I covered some of the practical issues in preparing for a presentation. Now that you know when and where you’re speaking AND what you’re speaking about, it’s time to begin collecting your thoughts, words, and images.
Consider theme. Most of the talks I give are meant to be inspirational, as opposed to informational so I tend to start by thinking thematically. Recently, I was asked to speak to high school students about the importance of arts in education. I knew I wanted to include a personal story, given that I have received the benefits of arts programs; and I knew I wanted to include a few statistical examples that reinforced the overall point of arts education. After some thought, I landed on a theme of creativity since that is common to all arts classes. My story and my data both spoke to the importance of arts education to those who pursue and (perhaps more importantly) do not pursue the arts; and how it improves their overall education (and aptitude in non-arts subjects). Having an overarching theme allows you to connect seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive presentation. You don’t have to put your theme in the title; in fact, no one even has to know you have one. It’s simply a tool to help guide you in assessing whether or not all of your points fit under one “big idea”.
Along with theme, consider your point of view. Audiences respond to speakers who know their subject and, perhaps more importantly, are passionate about their subject. Infuse your presentation with words and thoughts that originate in your core. If your words are rooted in conviction and reinforce your points, you will deliver them in a more genuine, honest way. Otherwise, your audience may sense you’re being disingenuous which will cause them to disengage.
Create structure. People are story-based. We crave a beginning, middle, and end. You can insure that you deliver on this by carefully considering your presentation in the context of your theme. Typically this involves presenting a point, providing illustrative information that reinforces the point, then referencing it back to your larger theme before moving onto your next point.
There are several ways to create your structure. Analytical, logical types may want to start with an outline in a word program. Others might choose to create mind maps. I actually prefer to work in Keynote. Many presenters believe this is a bad idea, because it can place too much emphasis on “snazzy visuals” instead of content (and it can, so beware). My work, however, inherently relies on relaying concepts in a visual way so I find “thinking” in Keynote to be very helpful. I usually start with a theme/title page, then create pages for each of my points and fill in some preliminary information. This forces me to stick to my point when I’m putting info on the page. I can instantly see whether or not it fits on that page or should move to another. It’s essentially an outline built in Keynote, but it works for me. Your approach can also depend on the style of presentation. Experiment with a few different approaches and use what works best for your style.
Create connection. People also crave connection. Anyone can stand up and read stats from a slide. Make your presentation personal by sharing a story that illustrates your point (bonus points if its humorous and allows people to see themselves in a similar situation). Take a look at this video on TED. In it, Sir Ken Robinson establishes his points, but then goes further by telling several compelling stories that illustrate his ideas; some are about other people, some are about him or his family. What stories do is open a window between the audience and speaker, allowing the audience to see themselves (or someone they know) in these stories; creating a connection. This brings the audience closer to the storyteller and makes it easier for them to digest the ideas the speaker is presenting.
Collect your visuals. Eventually, you’ll need to start gathering all of your images. I’m primarily motivated and moved by visuals; so I allow a lot of time to browse for images and video that support my subject.
You’ll create a folder for your talk. In it, create a subfolder for notes, another for images, and another for video. Then search through your own files and the internet, remembering that this exercise is all about volume. It’s okay to harvest a LOT of images. You’ll edit later (more on that in part II).
Go for striking, uncluttered, high-contrast images because those tend to read best from far away AND can be seen clearly even when the projector is dim or low-quality. Steer clear of the banal and the literal. You want the visual to support your idea, not bludgeon the audience with its obviousness. To that end, don’t be afraid to be abstract or whimsical.
Collect high-resolution images (aim for 1920×1080 minimum). Crop out any extraneous or distracting details. Rename the file to something that is easy for you to remember or locate quickly; and place all of the files in your respective folders.
One last point on visuals. Someone went to the effort to create the visuals that you find so wonderful. Be an awesome human and give them credit. The easiest way to remember the creator is to put the credit info in the file name; but the best way is to right-click on the image and fill out the meta-data (using Properties on PC or Get Info on Mac). Both platforms provide editable fields, allowing you to enter the creators name and other info, along with tags to make it searchable.
So now you have your thoughts together, an outline made, and a collection of images and video. What’s next? Part III will cover creating your visual presentation and rehearsing. Part IV will cover presentation day.
Just a quick post today to share a few brief tips.
I read an article recently in Dramatics Magazine. Written by Sean O’Skea, “How To Talk Design” is a helpful guide to young designers navigating their first production experiences. It also functions as a pretty good reminder to seasoned pros as well.
While it’s clear that his advice is aimed at theatrical designers, anyone in an artist/client relationship can relate to these questions, which focus on getting concrete information out of a director (which, sometimes, is no mean feat…).
A few of my favorites are:
“Why is the director taking on the show?” This one can be important because we all do projects for different reasons. Understanding why the director is participating can give you insight into what they are looking for.
“What does the director think the play is about?” I think “Sweeney Todd” is about how revenge destroys us from the inside. Others think it’s about British societal castes. Still others think it’s a charming little tale about embracing opportunity. The point is – everyone has different opinions about what the play is about; but only one really matters.
“What is the director’s vision for the ‘world’ of the play?” If the director says he’s doing a traditional staging of “Hello, Dolly”, you begin to form certain images in your head. If the they say they’re doing “Hello, Dolly” as imagined by Tim Burton, you get a very different set of mental images.
Perhaps his best statement is “Communicate artfully, early, and often”.
Communicating artfully is something with which I believe we all struggle. To state your artistic intent clearly and with purpose in a way that allows people to understand what you see in your head is something that must be worked on continuously. It first requires that you know what you want to see on the stage. That is informed by the project, the research, and a myriad of other influences; all combining to create that vision. But as long as the vision stays stuck in your head, it’s virtually useless. It’s YOUR responsibility to get it out of your head through drawings, words, and actions. Communicate artfully!
You can read Sean’s full article here (on page 31).
I just finished reading Anne E. McMills new book, THE ASSISTANT LIGHTING DESIGNER’S TOOLKIT, and I found it to be a comprehensive guide to a profession that is often, sadly, overlooked in the entertainment industry.
The book is set into four main parts: The Profession, The Process, The Paperwork, and The Industry. Within each area, Anne dives deeper, proffering concrete information about her subject. Calling this book a toolkit is a perfect description. Peppered throughout are tips, tricks, and insight, drawing not only from Anne’s extensive experience across a broad spectrum of entertainment, but from other design professionals as well.
Her detailed descriptions of the expectations of an assistant and their role in each of the four areas is comprehensive and thoughtful; especially during “The Process”, where she steps through, in great detail, design prep, loading in, and tech rehearsals. Also included are descriptions of each of the “players” in addition to advice on how to work with some of the different personalities one might encounter.
In Part 4, “The Industry”, she does a great service to her readers by touching on areas of employment for lighting personnel. From the obvious, like Broadway and the West End to other areas that might not typically be considered; like architectural, industrials, and themed entertainment. Many people in this field are driven to work only in the theater, so its great to see someone discussing the many areas of employment open to those who are interested.
Anne features all manner of charts, photos, and diagrams to illustrate her points; with examples from notable designers like Ken Billington, Don Holder, Andrew Bridge and many, many others.
Notably, in the final part, she doesn’t shy away from discussing the challenges in making a living in this predominantly free-lance industry. Here again, she offers advice and practical tips on how to make things work for you, while pursuing your passion.
The book wraps up with a comprehensive appendix, full of checklists and samples that are invaluable.
Whether you’re looking to be an assistant or a designer or both; there is a wealth of pertinent information provided for you in this book. Anne’s writing style is easy and personable, and she lays out her information so that its accessible and easy to digest.
Recently, I had the great pleasure of participating in the International Thespian Festival, held annually on the campus of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. We were treated to unusually cool temperatures and only a little rain, which made the week all the more pleasant.
The festival is produced by the Educational Theatre Association. It features a full week of activities for high school drama students. Some of the activities include performance and technical competitions (National Individual Events), college auditions, a wide variety of workshops for directors, choreographers, actors, techs, and playwrights, and fully-staged student plays and musicals. Among this years shows were, “Catch Me If You Can”, “Of Mice and Men”, “Mary Poppins”, and “Violet”.
Also included is an opening night event staffed onstage and backstage by specially selected students. Opening the festival this year was “An Evening with Shaiman and Wittman”, featuring the writer/composer duo of Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman, a cast of eight students, and two Broadway singer/actors.
The student technicians are mentored by seasoned pros and are afforded a unique learning opportunity; given that the show is blocked and choreographed in a day and teched in about an hour, with no cue -to-cue or other rehearsal.
It’s a great way for the students to learn how to pull a show out of thin air. I worked with three bright, motivated students and enjoyed my time with them immensely.
The students were also treated to a special cabaret featuring Broadway performers Carla Stickler and Justin Brill.
This week drove home for me, yet again, the importance of introducing and nurturing a love of the arts in our nation’s schools. Only a small percentage of arts/drama/music students choose to pursue a career in the arts. Those who do pursue a career in the arts face a mountain of challenges; made all the more daunting by a culture that devalues artistic contribution and rewards “celebrity” instead.
Those who do not pursue a career still carry a love of the arts into adulthood, introducing their friends, family and children to art, drama, music, and dance; four forms of expression that make us more well-rounded humans; that teach us more about ourselves.
It’s difficult to not be cynical about the state of the arts in our nation. With threatened cuts to the N.E.A, arts programs being cut out or scaled back in public schools, and theaters, operas, and symphonies folding all over the U.S., the outlook appears bleak. This, despite the numerous studies conducted within the last five years concluding that the arts support and cultivate creativity in the nations youth and that creativity is the number ONE quality sought by the world’s business in their leaders.
The conclusion ought to be obvious to our political leaders, but it’s clearly not.
In order to not cave into that bleak cynicism, I volunteer my time to work with these students through the California State Thespians. The time I spend with theatre students rejuvenates my own passion for my chosen career. I see their youthful drive, their unbridled love for their craft, their excitement, energy, and clear sense of purpose and it re-inspires me all over again. I hope they find their experience to be as enjoyable and rewarding as I do.
I went to see the touring version of “Peter and the Starcatcher” recently, after having caught it at New World Stages in New York this past May. The tour retains the intimate feeling of the New York version, which I was happy to see. The cast does a wonderful job with the dense, wordy, witty material and includes a number of standout performances. Again, though, I was taken with Donyale Werle’s Tony-award-winning scenic design. Donyale is a leading member of the Broadway Green Alliance, which strives to educate the theater community about making environmentally-friendly choices.
Donyale has said that her approach to the design of “Peter” fits perfectly with the show in that it’s about, “creating something out of nothing”. The proscenium for the New York version includes bottle caps, kitchen implements, sippers, toys, rope and a variety of other items, most collected or donated by kids through the Broadway Green Alliance. Each iteration of the show has embraced that aesthetic, of starting with collected items, then making them into something creative and artistic that fits the show. Due to the rigors of travel, the touring set has less recycled material than the New York versions, but the vision remains intact using green materials.
That vision embraces the imaginative and hand-made. Throughout the show, which takes place on two separate ships and numerous locales on a remote island, the scenery only suggests the locations. The cast fills in the rest, stimulating the audiences imagination by using ladders, fabric, umbrellas, rope, and other various props, along with their bodies to tell the story.
The overall effect is magnificent, but not in an over-the-top way that makes you loudly exclaim “WOW!” It’s more understated, like an under-your-breath “wwwooooowwww”, as you re-engage parts of your imagination that may have been closed off for years. The show pulls off the unique feat of asking the audience to participate in a different way; by taking us to far-off places that are only barely suggested. The encouraging thing is that audiences appear to love the idea and are happy to go along for the ride.
Of course, some theaters have recycled for years, mostly by re-using flats and furniture for different productions; but this approach is significantly different from that. By going out into the community to collect cast-offs and trash, sifting and sorting through the detritus, then re-combining the elements into something new and artful, we have a different conversation about how and what we consume, and what happens to items after they’re no longer supposedly “useful”.
I suppose an argument could be made that all this approach does is delay the inevitable; that after this usage, the items will then end up in a landfill. While that may be true in some cases, I think the greater value is in asking the question: What can we use that’s already out there? How can we be creative and artful with what already exists? Inevitably, creation and destruction are bound together; but are there ways to minimize the impact to our world? These are heady questions; and I’m hopeful that we can find answers, with artists like Donyale Werle leading the way.
In celebration of California Arts Education Week (Sep 8-14), this week’s posts will all focus on arts education.
This post, written by Fran Smith at Edutopia.com, offers a compelling case for growing arts in education in our nation’s classrooms. Some of the more salient points she makes are:
Due to the arts cutbacks in the ’70’s and ’80’s, we now have a whole generation of teachers and parents who were not exposed to the arts during their education, making it difficult for them to understand the value that the arts contribute to becoming a well-rounded individual.
Arts education enables children from a financially challenged background to have a more level playing field with children of means, who are often exposed to the arts outside of classrooms via their parents and family.
Years of research show that arts education is linked closely with almost everything that we as a nation say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.
I’d agree with all of those and more. The post then goes into great detail about specific educators who are challenging the status quo of reduced arts education, and how they are bringing arts back into their schools.
In celebration of California Arts Education Week (Sep 8-14), this week’s posts will all focus on arts education.
I found this post to be very interesting when I initially read it back in January. It’s worth revisiting this week. Lisa Phillips (author of “The Artist Edge: 7 Skills Children Need To Succeed In An Increasingly Right Brain World”) details her thoughts on ten skills that children learn in arts classes.
Let’s take a look at #8, Collaboration. A student can, of course, learn to collaborate in other areas, like team sports. But if you take a typical theater or music class and examine it, you’ll see that collaboration is woven into the very fabric of the art itself. I believe there’s a significant distinction between collaboration (in the arts) and teamwork (in sports). Both involve putting something larger (the show, the recital, the big game) before yourself, of course, but how you get there is very different.
Whereas team sports like football follow a prescribed set of rules and all teammates must work together to win a game, mounting a play requires a different sort of collaborative approach because the play is different every time. There are, simply, no actual rules. Common practices? Yes – but not rules. It takes a different skill-set to navigate a process in which no rules apply, versus playing a sport in which one is penalized for not following the rules.
A school band learns new music every year; they don’t play the same piece repeatedly, and each piece is open to interpretation. Again, no real rules.
And look no further than the dance world to see a total lack of rules.
I think this lack of rules is at the core of how the collaborative skill-set is learned differently in the arts than in other classes. Lisa Phillips says it quite well in her post, “When a child has a part to play in a music ensemble, or a theater or dance production, they begin to understand that their contribution is necessary for the success of the group. Through these experiences children gain confidence and start to learn that their contributions have value even if they don’t have the biggest role.”
In celebration of California Arts Education Week (Sep 8-14), this week’s posts will all focus on arts education.
Today’s post, from Backstage.com on April 13, was written by Harvey Young, a professor of theater at Northwestern University. In the post, he shares his thoughts on three reasons a theater degree is important:
1) Theater is a business.
2) The business of theater is good preparation for other careers.
3) Social importance and salary do not always correlate.
There’s something about breaking out of your normal surroundings that refreshes and rejuvenates your creative soul.
I had the opportunity to visit New York recently and it was remarkable how it shifted my perspective. I was there to attend a series of courses presented by Live Design magazine called the “Broadway Master Classes”. These multi-day courses consist of panel discussions, workshops, lectures, and meet-n-greets with notable, award-winning Broadway designers in the area of lighting, projection, sound, and scenic. The highlights for me included a discussion and demo of LED fixtures against conventional fixtures by lighting designer Don Holder, a workshop/demo on color presented by lighting designer Beverly Emmons, and a lecture on what projections needs from lighting presented by the incredible projection designer Wendall K. Harrington. These are three designers who I hold in very high regard. To hear them speak about their craft and demonstrate ideas was a wonderful experience.
I also had the opportunity to attend seven shows; “Lucky Guy”, “Peter and the Starcatcher”, “Fuerzabruta”, “Newsies”, “The Nance”, “Matilda” and “Kinky Boots”. All of them were quite good, with “Peter” and “Kinky” being the standouts for me personally. It was overwhelming to see so many shows in a short period of time, and to see how all of the different designers supported their respective scripts.
The set design for “The Nance” was seemingly simple but ingenious. It was a large periaktoi set upon a turntable, with numerous staircases and doors, and additional set pieces that would fly in or track on to change locations.It really captured the feel of a specific era in New York’s history.
For “Matilda”, the set nearly stole the show, with oversized children’s blocks at it’s heart. Each set piece in some way reflected this structural geometry. It was the opposite of “The Nance” in that it was intricate, massive, and complex – but served the storytelling beautifully. I was confounded a bit by the lighting. First off, it’s the easiest thing in the world to “armchair” other designers work; so instead of not liking others work, I tend to just have a lot of questions. It’s a beautiful design with some absolutely stunning looks but I had lots of questions after “Matilda”. The costumes in this show are simply incredible.
“Lucky Guy” is an intricately crafted play and all of the elements work seamlessly together. The scenic, projection, and lighting felt of one mind; though designed by three different designers. More than any other show I saw, the design felt woven into the fabric of the play. Getting to meet and speak with the lighting and projection designers afterwards was wonderful as well.
I wanted to like “Newsies” more than I did. This is likely more about me having lost my taste for conventional, big, splashy musicals than a reflection of the show itself. Again with this show, the scenic, lighting, and projection design worked incredibly well together; functioning as multiple locations in a specific period of New York’s history.
“Kinky Boots” was the unknown for me. I hadn’t seen the 2005 movie, but with a book by Harvey Fierstein and a score by Cyndi Lauper, I couldn’t resist. A fun story, warmly told, with some lively songs; this show surprised me. The costume design on this show is pretty spectacular as well. The set and lighting design both serve the show well.
I’m going to skip “Fuerzabruta” because it’s more of an experience than a show. It’s really hard to describe; but if you find yourself in New York – GO.
Which brings us to “Peter and the Starcatcher”; a “grown up prequel to Peter Pan”. The set (by Donyale Werle) is pure genius. Assembled from found objects it supports the style of story wonderfully; in which actors use every one of the props and set pieces (in a seemingly makeshift manner) to represent a variety of locations. The lighting (by Jeff Croiter) is simply magnificent; beautiful, layered, textured with little unexpected surprises peppered throughout the show.
Perhaps, though, the best thing I observed in any theater while I was there that three of the shows (“Matilda”, Newsies”, and “Peter”) all had a significant amount of young theater-goers in their respective houses. From around 8 years old (“Matilda”) to late teens (“Peter”), the crowds were rapt and responsive. It was so heartening to see hundreds of future theater-goers enjoying their experience.
I didn’t have much time but one of the benefits of traveling alone is being able to do A LOT very quickly. I managed to spend a decent amount of time in SoHo, the Village, and Little Italy all on the same day, with even a quick jaunt to Ladurree (for macarons to take home) on the upper east side and Grand Central Station. One of the many things I love about New York is how all the neighborhoods feel different. Each has it’s own vibe, it’s own voice.
I had the opportunity to visit The Cloisters, a museum near the northern tip of Manhattan built in the 30’s and housing medieval art and tapestries. The museum is a beautiful space, with an intricate design and a great use of light and texture.
Access to the museum is through Fort Tryon Park, where the flower fields were really beginning to show off their summer colors; such an interesting juxtaposition to the skyscrapers of the city and the medieval architecture of the museum.
One of the first things I did was take a walk on the High Line; an abandoned elevated railway track that has been re-purposed to include gardens, jogging paths, gathering spots, and cafe’s. It’s a stellar example of taking blight and re-imagining it into something completely different. It’s now the centerpiece of the neighborhood, used by the whole community and is a point of pride. As I sat in the sun, enjoying my bagel, I marveled at how the will of a community can change their surroundings and bring something like this into existence.
A little farther south, a much larger re-imagining is being undertaken on the site of the World Trade Center. Near the 9/11 memorial, new buildings are rising. It is an intricate, expansive story of tragedy and re-birth; and is somewhat awe-inspiring to witness. I spent some time there, thinking of that day and how much it has changed our world. The memorial, built on the footprint of the former twin towers, features two square waterfalls, each 30 feet high, which collect in a reflecting pool, then plunge into an unseen void in the center. It is a powerful piece of architecture and its amazing at how the sound of the falling water masks much of the city noise, making the space almost eerily muted.
A brief walk through Central Park led me to the Bethesda Fountain. Adjacent to the fountain is an arcade of stone and tile arches, where a small group of musicians was performing. Their voices, in this acoustically-friendly space, were magnificent.
I also stopped for a moment in Strawberry Fields, where there is a fitting tribute from Yoko Ono to John Lennon – black and white tiles, inset into the path that say, simply, “IMAGINE”.
With that, I started thinking about how every input we receive changes us. How one new thing can alter your perception. How a trip to a busy, chaotic city can seem peaceful and relaxing. And how, in this magnificent city (and many, many others), there are artists and creative people doing that they do, pushing forward, creating new work, giving us new things to see, to hear, to do, and to experience. This is the wonderful thing about travel. It forces you to re-engage all of your senses. It demands that you pay attention to the new surroundings and stimulus. And by re-opening yourself, you allow in new material, or content, or inspiration, or whatever you want to call it. All of that new inspiration is then sitting there, in your reserves, ready to come out in support of your next creative endeavor.