Monday, March 17, 2014

Ode for a Staff Meeting

One of my favorite things that happens here at the theater is our all-staff meetings. Around once a month, the entire staff will gather in our library, eat some food, drink some wine or coffee, and catch up. Since we're not a tiny place, this means that you get to check in with departments you don't often get to see - the administrative departments can hang out with the incredible people of the production team, who are usually out in the shop building the shows, etc. It allows the whole theater staff to connect, and even better, connect over wine and cheese. And since the theater happens to be staffed by an exceptional group of smart, fun, interesting people, hanging out with them hardly seems like work.

Each of these meetings is hosted by a separate department, who provides the food and leads the discussion. Sometimes this takes the form of a talk by an outside person about something the department feels would be useful (the operations department recently had a representative from an insurance company talk to us all), or the department themselves will give some insight into the projects they've been working on and what they do.

The most recent meeting fell to my department and I was tasked with the talk, as it were. Since we bear the heady title of Artistic, I felt some pressure to do something that was, well, artistic (or at least artistic-ish). But what? An interpretive dance representing my feelings about developing new work? A song about lobby displays? A terrible short play about all the good long plays we produce? None of these seemed right (correction: all of these seemed TERRIBLE). So I decided to try the muse for... a poem. Not a good poem, mind you, but a poem. So, without further ado, I present to you:

An Ode from Artistic 

Colleagues and coworkers gathered today, 
You might be thinking, “wait, is this a play?!” 
To which I say, nope, let me give reassurance
Acting we’re not, nor providing insurance. 
But for a staff meeting, you could do worse
Than to provide your precis, but do it in verse. 
So go get a sampling of nibbles and booze 
Find a nice seat, have nice schmooze, 
And I’ll tell you all what we do in Artistic
While somewhere the ghost of Shakespeare goes ballistic.

If you need someone whose domain is logistic
Don’t look to us - for our realm is artistic. 
Spreadsheets and numbers? Sure, we’ve got a few. 
But dealing in drama? That’s what we do. 
We pick out new plays with a promising mien 
Then give them some readings so they can be seen
Or if, in programming, ‘classic’s the word
We’ll set out some context so meanings aren’t blurred
We make sure our audiences are aware
Of the background and hist’ry of plays that we share 
We fully believe in promoting discussion 
Whether on Chile or use of percussion
If writers need space to commune with their muse
We’ll help them to write with some Navesink views. 
We take care of artists, and tend to their work
Though they’re sometimes peculiar, we love every quirk.
We’re proud to contribute, to play our own part: 
We help the people who help make the art.  
So come visit us in our orange domain 
And if you were wond’ring, we’ll gladly explain:
Here in Artistic, we love what we do
But equally, colleagues, we love all of you. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Pinkolandia, Art, and Understanding

I first had the feeling in the middle of Sleep No More. There I was, inside the immersive theater piece that had taken New York by storm, wandering around a floor of a building made to look like an indoor hedge maze*, itchy in the mask that designated me as a member of the audience, and totally alone. I didn't see anyone else in view except for a taxidermied goat, and I started to feel a rising sense of disgruntled panic. I was SURE I was missing something, that the rest of the audience was probably somewhere else seeing something cooler, that there was something I wasn't understanding. And I hated the feeling. 

It's a very human desire to want to know and understand - so much so it's even in the name of our species (the 'sapiens' in Homo Sapiens means 'wise'). We like to know what's what, what the weather will be like next week, to plan ahead and be experts in our fields. We don't like to be lost, to feel like we don't have the necessary pieces of the puzzle. We don't like to be the one staring at the hedges and the goat, alone. 

And yet, knowledge comes from curiosity. To make a groundbreaking scientific discovery, thousands of seemingly dumb experiments must be run. And to open ourselves up to the full spectrum of feelings that we look to art to inspire, we must occasionally go outside of our comfort zone. In the epic battle between intellect and emotion, between head and gut, art often strikes squarely in between. And often, “getting” a piece of art is not about "understanding" it fully.  

Take Shakespeare, for example. We do a lot of Shakespeare here at the theater, and so we often run across people who will say "oh, I don't understand Shakespeare." But when asked about the story of the play they just saw, they often find that they got Shakespeare just fine. They might not have understood all of the words and references in Romeo and Juliet's first scene together, but they got what was happening loud and clear. And that's really all that's necessary; Shakespeare was a smart enough writer that all his many references and details could fill a page with footnotes (and indeed they often do), but what makes his work last until today is not the cleverness of his allusions but the quality of his storytelling. And if you don't understand all of the historical references or arcane vocabulary, you'll probably still have enough to be able to go with the story, if you travel along with it. Moreover, if you allow yourself to be carried along with the verse and the poetry of Shakespeare’s work, you’ll find that it can act much as music does, and bring you to an emotional level that text alone cannot reach.

The play we're currently producing at the theater, Pinkolandiais a play about a family in Wisconsin in the early 1980s, after they have fled their homeland, Chile, following Pinochet's brutal military coup. Because it portrays a Chilean family, the play has some dialogue in Spanish, especially in a scene where Beny (the older of the two children) is trying to talk to her parents in the kitchen. Because I don't speak Spanish, the first time I heard it I felt like I was back in that hedge maze, while the bilingual audience members were doubtless getting some key information I was missing. I felt that familiar tide of disgruntled panic, until I realized that even though I didn't understand what the characters of the parents were saying to each other, I was being given enough in the English dialogue to understand the gist of what was being said. And, moreover, listening to the Spanish words fly lightning-quick between these two characters, I felt both like a child who is straining to understand the adult world around her, and like a refugee dropped into a culture I didn't know. I felt, in short, like the characters in the play. Even though I didn't fully understand the scene because of the Spanish, not understanding the scene helped me to better get the play. 

As for me, the goat, and the topiary? Well, after a minute I realized that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing in the piece – wandering through, and finding my own path. Nobody was having an identical experience to anyone else in the piece, we were all inevitably missing something, and that was partly the point. Moreover, I realized that though I didn’t love the feeling of being lost and missing out, the piece was making me feel something deeply. And in that moment, I got it. Opening ourselves up art means allowing ourselves to experience a full spectrum of feelings. And sometimes, it is the intention of a piece to make us a little lost, to make us a little uncomfortable, in order to make us better understand.

*If you’re not familiar with it, Sleep No More is a dance/theater piece, a version of Macbeth that makes the audience catch snippets of the story while they choose their own path while wandering around a building that's been converted into a spooky hotel set, both indoors and out)