I came across this statement in a little card shop in Madison, Wisconsin where I danced as a guest artist last week. It got me thinking – this is a particularly true statement in the arts. There is a notion that artists have great passion and love for what they do and so, inspiration and “product” must flow freely and easily from them… Not so. The arts require unrelenting discipline.
Learning in the arts takes stamina – the willingness to work and re-work a piece, to try and fail and try again, to be self-reflective, self-critical and self-driven to improve. Teachers can offer feedback and instruction toward that improvement, but no one can make the drawing, sing the song or perform the dance for you. Ultimately it is up to the individual’s hands, voice, body. The arts demand that we synthesize the events, emotions and discoveries of our lives into forms that communicate meaning to a viewer or audience. There is no one way, no right answer. While we may be able to emulate existing forms, and there is value in analyzing master works – it is in the sense of play within or in protest to given boundaries that innovation arises. We must listen and respond.
Iconic music experimenter John Cage gave the following advice to Merce Cunningham (who would become one of the leading dance artists of the 20th century) when starting his dance company and school: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to things. You can fool the fans--- but not the players.” Players. I love this term for artists.
Play and work are often taken to be diametrically opposed to each other, yet in the world of art – and I would argue, in the world of any discipline one is embedding themselves in deeply – “play” provides a special kind of research. Research that demands imagination, not just information-seeking. What new possibilities does your work reveal? Delight in the process of playing with each option. Now that you know and understand the chord progression of a particular song, how can you improvise on it? Once you have learned the steps of a dance or the words of a monologue, what do you really have to say with it? Bringing a sense of play to our work makes the tedium of “rehearsal” (or “repetition” as it translates in French) magically fun (yes, work is fun!!!) and satisfying.
This winter, we will bring to life the master work Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Here is an example of work and play united. The writers took the familiar stories of the Brothers Grimm, allowed them to collide in an enchanted forest, a liminal space where possibility rules, and then took the stories one step further to imagine what could happen AFTER “happily ever after.”
As the fifteen students who will perform the play came out for auditions, we saw no carbon copies of the popular stage version that was filmed for television, but four or five different interpretations of each role. This made casting both difficult and a joy. It was not the talent in the room (plenty of that too) but the determination that got me excited. How incredible to see these young artists daring to reveal themselves so fully, and to make big choices. I cannot wait to see what new discoveries we will uncover working and playing together to tell these stories anew --- look out Disney (their film version is due out December 25)!
Dreams are important. They fuel us. But they, in and of themselves, pale in comparison to the feeling of working to achieve them. Artistry is the desire to know more, to be more, to understand and communicate more through a creative process. This “work-play” reveals the possibility to dream more expansively, and even in the time crunch of our lives here at Dublin, time tends to burst open for us in the moment of creation or performance.
So these are my thoughts on this Thanksgiving-eve. May the work ahead leave us feeling satisfied and dreaming of more…