Make Good Art.

Long time no post. Yes.

Long story.

Most important lesson from this interval: in the words of the brilliant Neil Gaiman, “Make Good Art.”

He’s got a hilarious and wonderfully honest commencement talk about this, in which he includes the following scenarios:

“IRS on your trail? Make good art.”

“Cat exploded? Make good art.”

“Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art.”

To which I would add:

Somebody tells you that what you do doesn’t count, even though they’ve never seen your work? Make good art.

Somebody rolls their eyes when you try to explain what you do? Make good art.

Somebody gets resentful when you defend yourself? Make good art.

Earlier in the speech, Gaiman makes a crucial point:

“And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do, you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art. And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times, and it gets you through the other ones.”

(All quotations from Gaiman’s speech are taken from Make Good Art, designed by Chip Kidd [New York: Harper Collins, 2013].)

Once again, I think Gaiman’s absolutely right. The ability to make art, to make it in the company of some utterly extraordinary people, and to be reminded that such art matters, is what got me through the “other” times recently.

(I’ll post more about one of those projects soon: it’s in post-production right now.)

It’s one of the many reasons why I make sure to thank those artists (on Twitter and elsewhere) whose work I’ve seen and enjoyed: hard work and long hours went into that art, and I appreciate every minute of it. You (yes, you) are amazing. Thank you.

Gaiman’s point also kicked my ass today: I was talking with a friend and explaining what it’s like being a first-generation immigrant in a new city/state/country sometimes. “I’m a Resident Alien in more ways than one,” I said, and he chuckled in recognition.

“I’ve thought for a while about writing a play about that,” I continued. But then I stopped and corrected myself: “Enough thinking. I should just write that play,” I said.

So here I am, saying it to a wider audience: I’m writing that play. Starting now.

Stay tuned.

On Imperfection (or not being able to do everything you initially imagined).

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

–Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

I’ve been training for my second Ironman for several months now– I did my first last year, and finished successfully despite rather dramatic (pun intended) odds, including getting knocked off my bike by someone passing me illegally and weather of truly Lear-like proportions. (And no, I’m not exaggerating. Ask me and I’ll tell you the whole crazy story sometime.) All of which is very satisfying, except in the places where it isn’t.

Yes, I can now point to that experience and say, “See that? If I can do that, I can certainly do whatever is being asked of me right now.” And that’s unquestionably a useful thing. But there’s no doubt that the experience was not what I had imagined, did not come close to what I could have done had circumstances utterly beyond my control not intervened.

Hence this year’s planned race: I’m on sabbatical, so I’ll have time to train,  I thought. This time I’ll get it absolutely right. This time everything will be dialed in. This time it will be perfect.

And Lear and the gods laughed.

I trained, just like the plan told me to. I did everything I was told to do. I worked hard, I ate right, I went to bed early.

And I got slower. My heart rate spiked higher, and earlier than it ever had before. I wondered what on earth was going on.

At first I blamed allergies– there’s no question that the trees on the east coast (where I spent most of this spring) were out to get me with their pollen. One weekend, my throat was so swollen with coughing that I couldn’t utter any sound at all. (Huge relief that I didn’t have an audition or acting workshop that weekend.) The planned marathon in May became a half-marathon with my sister, which was great fun because I love running with her, but very tough when I had to tug her sleeve at one point and gasp, “Stop. I can’t breathe.”

The moment passed, but it wasn’t fun. We kept on going, and finished in a respectable-for-us time, but I was wheezing and spent, wondering What on earth is wrong with me?

The litany of self-blame was endless: I’m fat. I’m horribly out of shape. The idea of completing a full Ironman is a joke. What on earth am I doing here? Round and round the chorus went, reinforced every time I went out for a run or tried to pick up the speed in my swim intervals.

I went and saw my doctor last week– initially to get a referral to an allergist, given the breathing issues earlier in the season. But I also mentioned the HR spiking and an article my mother had sent me about Paula Findlay (a fabulous Canadian triathlete whose heartbreaking difficulties at the recent Olympics became ultimately traceable to a serious ferritin-deficiency issue), so got a full CBC and ferritin test, just to be sure.

The very next day, the doctor called (note: when your doctor calls you the day after your visit, something’s likely to be wrong)– sure enough, I was anemic: the levels of iron in my blood are lower than normal, so not enough red blood cells can get made to distribute oxygen where it needs to go. And my ferritin levels (= the iron stored by my bone marrow) are particularly low. Hence (possibly) the high HR, difficulty breathing, and unexplained tiredness in the afternoons.

More tests are to come to make sure we know where the anemia comes from. But honestly, my first reaction was relief. Oh. So that’s what’s going on. It’s not my fault after all.

(Also, I admit that I thought, Hey, now I have something more in common with Paula Findlay besides being freckled female Canadian triathletes! Paula is, needless to say, vastly more talented and quick than I’ll ever be at this sport.)

There’s really something quite extraordinary about realizing that one really has done everything one could– it’s just that circumstances have intervened to put some parameters on what that means.

For the moment, for instance, that means that running is a run-walk proposition: run until my HR reaches the top of Zone 2 (out of 5), then walk until it drops about 20 beats, then run again. Repeat ad infinitum. Not only can I do this for a long time, I can now concentrate on form during the run segments, rather than on just hanging on for as long as I can. (That May half-marathon was mostly done in Zone 4, it turns out– one stage below flat-out. No wonder I was utterly spent by the end of it.)

So I’ll take my supplements, eat iron- and fibre-rich foods (though ideally not at the same time), and keep on training. Rather mundane, really. While the would-be-perfectionist in me is disappointed (dammit, the ideal plan eludes me yet again!), the rest of me is hugely relieved. I can still do the best I can– and that will be enough. It has to be, because that’s all there is. Anemia isn’t an excuse for complacency, but it is an explanation for exhaustion.

Similarly, I can give all I can to the students who need me at the moment, but that’s all– and that will have to be enough. They really can do the rest themselves.

None of it is perfect, or even what I could have imagined. But, like every different night onstage in the theatre, it is enough. It has to be– it’s all I have. And that has to be all right right now.

The measure of a production…

…or, what about the “Hmm” factor?

Now that the initial reviews are out for the Goodman’s Measure for Measure and I’ve had some time for the show to percolate, I have some thoughts.

(Possible spoilers follow for those who’ve not yet seen the show. You have been warned!)

I liked a good deal of this production: the choice of setting worked very well, with stunning sets, lights, and music. I can get behind accentuating the comic aspects of the text, too, since quite often M4M productions that take themselves too seriously end up being rather dreary. The ensemble movement work between scenes was gorgeous, and some of the acting work was impressive, though some seemed a bit at a loss…and this was where I started “hmm”-ing to myself.

For instance, in the prison scene between the disguised Duke and Claudio, the Duke’s long speech about the miseries of life is often delivered as an attempt to persuade the young man to accept his doom– here it’s given as an introspective rumination, as if the Duke forgets that he has someone to whom he’s supposed to be speaking. By the end of it, Claudio just looks bored, and the audience is generally lost. Similarly, if Claudio is a genuine part of Lucio and Pompey’s world, rather than a nobleman who’s erred, then do his sister’s appeals to honour have any chance at all of working? If not, wouldn’t she know that already? She’s too intelligent to choose a tactic that’s doomed to fail, isn’t she?

I was also left wondering what the purpose of the play’s action was within the framework of the setting– if the Duke is wracked with guilt (as he seems to be) at the play’s outset for letting the law slip so often, why does he let corruption continue while he’s in disguise, why go through the complex intricacies of the bed-trick, why swap one man’s head for another, and why manipulate Isabella so hideously at the end of the play? One of the problems this notorious “problem play” presents is the need for a justification of all these extremes, and this production doesn’t seem to have one. Several of these moments in the show are funny, to be sure, but I was puzzled by what seemed to be a lack of motivation for them besides entertainment.

Which leads me to the ending. Ah, the by-now-famous ending, which attempts to put a radical twist on the work as the curtain falls.

Hmm.

On the one hand, I salute Mr. Falls and the entire cast for wanting to try something new and taking on that challenge. The ending as they’ve staged it certainly fits in with the setting and framework they’ve chosen; plus, it’s guaranteed to have audiences talking about the production for days afterwards (as I and my companions did), which is no small thing.

Yes… and yet, there’s a problem here. For on the other hand, the text of the play sets up a very difficult conundrum for any given cast to solve: how will Isabella choose? For choose she must, but at what cost? Is there even a ‘right’ answer for her? The Goodman’s staging, innovative though it is, simply eliminates the issue entirely, which is a kind of cheating, really: if there is no need to choose, then the fraught nature of the ending vanishes, and the party simply goes on in full swing. We’re no longer faced with the tension of virtue and vice, as a result: vice wins, and everyone dances to Donna Summer while the world remains utterly unchanged by recent events.

If nothing changes, once the music stops and the applause fades I do start to wonder what we sat through all of this for. I left feeling a bit like Madeleine L’Engle’s Charles Wallace on Camazotz: presented with a lovely-looking turkey dinner that ended up tasting of sand.

*Enter, stage right*

Historians are unsure about what might have caused the Greek poet Thespis* to step away from the chorus onstage at the City Dionysia in ancient Athens and speak lines as a character in a play for the first time**– Money? Thrills? A 6th-century BCE desire for notoriety and notices in the Athens Enquirer?

Possibly…or perhaps he realized that an audience might identify more strongly with an individual rather than with groups, thus developing the nascent art of stagecraft.

Or maybe he simply had something to say, something different from the choric refrains, an idea, thought, or opinion that required a distinct voice and persona to take shape.

Hence the idea of this blog, a forum where such a moment might take place: an articulation separate from the rumblings of the chorus.

*Deep breath*

Beginning is always the hard part. On with the show.

*Thespis also commenced the practice of theatrical touring, according to Horace, and thus might be called the father of the Glamorous Life celebrated by Sondheim.

**Theatre folk are often asked in interviews which shows they’d love to have seen if it were possible– this performance would certainly be on my list. What would the audience have done, that very first time?