I wrote some time ago about “the end” of art. Now it’s time to talk about the beginning. How does the artist know when a piece is ready? How does the audience know when it’s half-baked.
There are different kinds of ready. A play might be ready for a staged reading. It might be ready for workshopping with varying degrees of full production polish. Or it might be ready for a true premiere.
The reason this question is speaking to me this week is that the play I’ve been working on (with Nancy Kenny) for most of the past year is getting ready to go through the wringer of 4 Fringe festivals across the country this summer. So maybe, if it helps you to compartmentalize my roles in the world, I’m speaking in part as an artist today, and not just as a critic. That said, I’ve also made more than a few claims for critics being artists themselves, so maybe this is pure conflict of interest. But I’m just going to try and do the same thing I always do when I write for the NOC: talk about my experience inside the process of making art.
Nancy and I have been writing and reading and re-writing, and recording sounds, and re-recording them for months now. And this week we reached a place in the creative journey where we need to acknowledge that the play is not going to be ready for a full performance run at the Ottawa Fringe, as we’d been hoping it would be. I don’t know how interesting the practical reasons for that decision are, but I think that there are a lot of interesting things in a discussion of the developmental process.
The script is in a complete draft. There’s a beginning, middle, and end; there are themes and motifs that are woven throughout the piece; and the characters go on journeys. But it’s not done. We could put it up on its feet with full lights and sound and bells and whistles in 5 weeks. But it has become clear to us that, with that short stretch of time between us and performance, it wouldn’t be telling the story we want, in the way that we want.
I’m learning a lot in this process; it’s the first time I’ve tried to make a play happen from start to finish. It turns out there is a strategy to getting tiny, though ambitious, plays developed into more substantial productions. The strategy doesn’t include putting up a show that is still cooking and changing dramatically every time we sit down to work on it, and don’t believe is a finished piece, in front of any audience as a finished product.
On a fundamental level, lying isn’t what art is about. It’s hard to make art you don’t believe in; an artist’s goal is to speak something fundamentally true about their experience in the world to an audience. And if the thing we are saying is presented as a complete finished final “product” that is, in our minds, fundamentally unfinished, there is a profound disconnect between form and message that leads to a dissatisfying art experience for everyone.
Basically, we don’t want to lie to you, because we don’t think that’s what art is about, and it certainly isn’t what we’re about.
Embracing the unfinished nature of the piece, beyond alleviating some pressure, leads to some really interesting opportunities. We nearly cancelled the show completely, but instead, we’re hoping to use the time we have to experiment and see what happens when we try some different things out in front of our audiences. The plan is to present a different version of the show each night, as we fine tune the script and the staging, in a sort of live rehearsal process. It’s the part the audience normally doesn’t see, because artists have been conditioned to hide everything but the finished product from the public eye. In that sense, at least, this will be a unique experience.
To make things even more interesting, Nancy and I will be inviting a member of the New Ottawa Critics to attend all the performances as an embedded critic, who will document the changes the show undergoes from night to night, and lead a discussion with the audience in the remainder of our hour in the space.
As an artist, I’m hoping that some of you will find the idea of participating in the creative development of a piece of theatre an interesting experience as an audience member. Following up on my discussion from last week, this sort of experience is certainly something that requires you to be alive in the room; it wouldn’t work in a non-live medium like film. I’m hoping that you’re interested enough to come check out how things have changed later in the week. How your feedback has been integrated or conspicuously ignored. You’ll have a chance to see how the characters develop over the longer organic arc of the creative process, rather than just the somewhat contrived dramatic arc that we create for them through that process and present as part of the finished piece.
As a critic, I’m hoping that this will deepen your interest in your own creative faculties and their application. I’m hoping this will inspire you to think more critically about theatre and the value that constructive voices have in the making of art.
Now comes the (hopefully) interesting part of this piece. Because clearly I have an agenda in writing it, and it seems to me that only by making that agenda absolutely explicit can I claim to be upholding both of my jobs. My agenda is that I want people to come watch the piece of theatre I am making. I want you to wonder if what I am proposing counts as a theatrical event, and if it’s worth your time and energy. Also, I want you to wonder if I am acting in a conflict of interest between my roles as a critic and an artist in the writing of this piece. I want you to question what the job of a critic is, and what the job of an artist is. I want you to ask yourself if the NOC is serving as a soap box endorsing a particular piece of theatre made by a member of the organization.
I don’t know the answers to those questions. It is my belief that I am not acting in a conflict of interest, because I am presenting you with the relevant fact about both the artistic and critical situation for you to make your own determinations about the questions that are raised. I think part of a critic’s job is to provide as much knowledge as they can about a particular theatrical production for the increased understanding of the reading public. So as a critic, I’m very interested in how this production goes.
As an artist, I want to sell my show. That much is clear. But more importantly, I want to sell you on my process and ability to deliver an interesting and valuable experience to the audience. Because then you might come back. And while I’m excited to work on this piece in this odd open-workshop way, it also scares the shit out of me, because I’ve been training myself to present only finished products. I need to overcome the conditioning that tells me I must only show the public finished products, because the artistic process is somehow not valuable unless it is “finished.”
I think that if finished products are the only thing in the world of art that’s valuable, then there is a problem with our understanding of art. The problem is principally that because neither art nor human society ever cease to change, not recognizing the continual evolution of an artistic product, and categorizing it as something absolutely “complete” is just plain untrue. The process is crucial to the point, and I’m hoping by exposing the process to you, we can work together on expanding our minds to include the artistic process as a valuable product in our society.
It’s interesting that we pay a web developer for the time it takes them to design and build, as well as maintain and support a finished website. It seems like artists, at least in most levels below hollywood stardom, are only paid for the equivalent of maintenance or tech support of the creative process, while they’re expected to build the site for free. Professionals get paid for rehearsal time, but even they don’t get paid for the work that goes into becoming and staying strong performers. The point is not that artists should be paid more for their developmental work, (though I think they should). The point is that we can recognize that the process itself is a valuable and interesting part of the creative process that has just as much to offer an audience.
I’m not suggesting that the act of performing is less important than the act of creating, but rather pointing out that the model by which we allocate value in the arts is disproportionately weighted towards the performance end of the spectrum; largely because of the practice of keeping rehearsal rooms shut. What I’m trying to say is that if the performance has value, the work that went into making the performance also has value, and vast amounts of work (by both “performers” and “creators”) that is never seen by the public goes largely unrecognized. Putting up a theatrical production is a massive creative undertaking, and what the public sees as the discrete finished product has actually grown out of a much larger and unseen body of work that supports and informs it continually. The performance is incredibly important, but it is the tip of the creative effort that has gone into the production, from the technical work that goes into building the artist’s tool kit, to the conceptual stages of script creation and design of that specific production, to the actual realization of those designs and their embodiments by the performers and tech live in front of the audience.
The “final performance” might be considered the “culmination” of the entire creative process, but it might equally be considered the one of the least important from the perspective of the artist. For the artist, the performance is one more symbiotic investigative tool in the larger ongoing creative process.
And as for the “message” contained in a piece of art, or “the thing you want to say to the world,” I believe that that thing is contained equally in the process as well as the “product,” and that all the moments within the creative process, including acts of performance, are working towards a clearer embodiment of that message.