Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What is an artist, anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the definition of “artist”. Often in Christian circles, people talk about artists as creators and quickly draw a parallel to The Creator, underlining the essentially sacred nature of what artists do.

I’ve always really liked that idea (undoubtedly due, at least in part, to that all-too-human desire to be like God). But as a director, I question whether I can call myself a creator. And if I can’t, can I call myself an artist?

Recently, Theatre at TWU presented a piece called Mythification. Under the direction and guidance of Kris Knutsen, students used the inspiration of the first chapter of Genesis and the form of Greek tragedy to write and perform a work that personified the beginning of the world. A creation about the creation.

My Dean at TWU, David Squires, is a musician and composer, and he responded to Mythification with unrestrained enthusiasm. In a thank you letter to the cast, he wrote:

I am an artist, and I believe that the human impulse towards creating something new is a strong measure of God-likeness. In the imago dei he made us, and we return the blessing, if you will, by making something which hasn’t existed before. And the moment it appears on the scene it is a wonder...suddenly there where nothing had been!

I am an artist, and I believe that the world is a better place because I am made thus, and because I am surrounded by so many others who also speak this uncommonly God-like language.

But I am not sure I can claim to speak that language. The art I make is not created ex nihilo. The plays I direct are written already, whether classics with many performances or new works with few. The theatre, designers, cast, and crew are new; but are we creators?

My friend Lucia makes a distinction between “artists” and “craftspeople” or “artisans”. The artists create out of nothing and the artisans hone the work of others. She claims that the relationship is more of a marriage than a hierarchy – the artists need the craftspeople to see the vision to the end, to collaborate so that the artwork reaches something nearer beauty and perfection.

(It’s no surprise that she is a playwright – the only artist in this scenario.)

Like Dean David, Lucia believes to create means to bring something into existence that was not there before. But in the case of theatre, the definition is tricky. If Lucia writes a play and I put together a creative team and mount a production, did it exist before the performance?

The art the playwright creates is the words only, on the page solely; art, certainly, but written art, as is a poem or a novel. The art of theatre is something else altogether. Whereas music cannot be “read” until it is played or sung, the art of theatre and the art of drama are two separate, intimately related disciplines.

And when we speak of theatre, we must remember that it is, at its core, collaborative. Theatre is a living art and it lives in performance. And the performance of a play – whether the first or the fortieth – has been brought to life by the collaborators. It did not exist before and it will not exist again.

I remember reading an interview with Raymond Chandler once in which he was asked whether he was concerned about what filmmakers were going to do to his novel. His response was (more or less): “They aren’t going to do anything to my novel. It’s sitting right over there.”

That is a fitting parallel for the theatre. While Lucia the playwright is unquestionably a creator and artist, Lucia is also an artist and creator when she dons her actor-hat to embody a play written by someone else. While a piece of music can be "faithfully rendered", each production of a play must be different from those before because of the many interpretive collaborators, the demands of the physical space, and the lack of indisputable guidelines for presentation. Music can be recorded and preserved, while live theatre is impossible to capture, different each performance, non-existent once a production closes. Those who make theatre - the actors, director, and designers - are artists and creators. Without their vision and implementation, the words would remain on the page, artful but lifeless.

While I'm pleased that I've managed to formulate an argument to convince myself, if no one else, it seems fitting to end all this philosophizing with a warning from Mr. Chandler.

The more you reason, the less you create.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Of Rules and Revelations

I love dance. Years ago, while watching Edouard Lock's remarkable Amelia, I had an epiphany of sorts. White-knuckled from clutching the arms of my seat to resist the urge to jump up on stage, I realized that if I had been blessed with a different body type I might have been a dancer.

Tonight, I had the pleasure of viewing a new work by Amber Funk Barton's company The Response. Risk is a piece that "is an observation of how young people act...", an idea that could have spawned something as painful as an exploration of post-adolescent angst or a movement-only rendition of The OC. Thankfully, due to the skill of the choreographer and dancers, coupled with a healthy sense of humour, Risk is a thoroughly entertaining, often inspiring, and sometimes moving work of art.

A month ago I saw another dance piece that did not elicit such praise. In fact, viewing the solo work WhaT,? choreographed by Jennifer Mascall and performed by Ron Stewart, compelled me to come up with a new rule: no more talking dancers. I should probably have known by the pretentious way in which the title is spelled that the work was going to be tiresome. But my primary complaint had to do with the fact that the show's story was narrated by Stewart. There are two problems with this. First, he is not an actor and a monologue of any length that is performed for an audience requires acting skill. Second, speaking takes up a lot of the breath needed to dance effectively so the choreography could not match his skill.

Tonight's show proved the wisdom of my rule; the "story" in Risk was clear and engaging without words. Part of the reason we go to dance is because dancers speak a language most of us do not. Why compromise that ability in order to use the same communication tool we can all access?

(In response to the outcry of dancers who insist they have the right to speak, let me offer this: my prejudice works both ways. Although it is flirting with sacrilege to confess it, during the wildly successful show The Overcoat I found myself wondering how much better that wordless, movement-based piece could have been with dancers instead of actors. Some can do both, I know. Most cannot.)

But for those theatre artists who can't dance, there's nothing quite so inspiring as a great contemporary dance work. The ways in which the performers move teach us about the body's physical potential as well as its capacity to carry meaning. It's a great antidote to Western acting theories' emphasis on psychological realism. Truthful acting requires complete commitment, mentally, emotionally, physically. Observing talented dancers apply the same standards to their work reveals the common goals of both arts and encourages us to learn from each other. And it helps us to remember the importance of the actor's body.

In the introduction to her fabulous book The Body Speaks, Lorna Marshall states:

The body is the direct point of connection between our inner self and the outer world, not merely a transportation or communication device...In a sense, it is the sole mediator of human experience. It is our body that climbs the mountain, whispers in another's ear, trembles with excitement, notices the light change, grips the bag, tenses with fear, laughs with delight. It is our body that actually lives our life.

Theatre artists must understand this better than any others because ours is the most incarnational of the arts. If we are to portray human stories we must understand the human body.

So if you love theatre, go see a dance performance.