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Posts Tagged ‘art’

Cat and Quilt

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So I’m back on the wagon, both with the blog and with the work. I’m not making promises anymore about how often I’ll post here – I’m trying to do my best to surrender to the wack-a-day rhythm that is my life, and just go with it. It’s nice finally to be working on something that isn’t a secret; something I can show to the interwebs!

I started this quilt in 2007, I think, or even 2006. Most of the fabrics came from Kaimuki Dry Goods in Hawaii. I visited in January of 2006, and bought half a suitcase of stuff with a vague plan in mind and not much more. I spent months staring at the fabrics before I finally worked up the courage to cut into them, and then made a small amount of progress before my brother and sister-in-law announced their engagement. I very carefully labeled all the pieces and put them away in a box so I could tackle the wedding quilt that would take two years to finish. When that was all over, I hadn’t exactly forgotten about this beauty, but I didn’t have any more quilt in me.

Since I have mentally declared 2013 as “The Year of Wrapping Up Loose Ends,” it was with satisfaction but some trepidation that I pulled that box off the shelf a few weeks ago. I’ve made several more quilts in the intervening years, and gotten much better at making the seams line up and the corners pointy. I was worried that I’d look at the old blocks and hate them. Luckily, I have declared the previous work “good enough” and thrown myself back into it, with an even clearer idea of what I want the finished product to look like.

Making a full-sized quilt with a cat around is harder than making a quilt without the cat. Inara loves to help with any project, but I’m having a hard time convincing her that the hot iron is not something she wants to smell and that I really just did wash all that fabric and would like to keep the cat hair content to a minimum. When we can declare a truce, she likes to hang out behind the machine, blessedly out of the way, and snooze. I’ve built four more blocks in the last three weeks, and progress in continuing apace.

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FART-ing Around

It’s been a busy week here at the FART. We’re playing host to a large software conference for three days this week on top of our regular slate of shows. This makes for 16-hour work days for many of us, and a whole pile of sleepy for me.

We seem to be booking more and more of these outside gigs. I’m glad that the theater’s making money somewhere, because frankly the shows are struggling right now. I have my own opinions about some of the season choices that management made this year, but in the interest of keeping my job, I’ll keep them to myself. Times are still tough in the arts industry, and I’m not sure they’re ever going to recover completely. There’s been a sea change in how our audience thinks about their entertainment dollar, and I think that cultural institutions have to figure out what that is and adapt to it, or die.

It’s hard for me to think about what theater I would want to attend, since I’m so deeply wedged into the community that it’s difficult for me to discern between stuff I want to see and people I want to see. I feel like I can apply this thought to something that I love but attend much less frequently – the visual arts.

We have several large art museums in the Twin Cities, and quite a few smaller galleries and studio communities. Being a very busy person, I don’t go out to see much art anymore. To me, that time feels like a luxury that I don’t often have, so I treat art like an indulgence. It’s a treat that I save for birthdays, or when it’s the dead of winter and I need a pick-me-up. Because it’s seldom, when I go I want a sure bet most of the time – something that I know I’m going to like. This tends to be a big name touring show – I hit up a Rembrandt exhibit for my birthday, or the Frieda Kahlo I saw with my folks when they were visiting. These kinds of exhibits sell tickets and cost money to get into – maybe $10-$15 each. That’s not a lot of money, but it’s definitely a consideration for why I don’t go more often.

That’s the kind of art-going that I do most frequently – to something with a lot of heavy promotion, something that generates a lot of buzz and everyone has heard of. My art choices are the Christmas Carol and Hamlet of the art world. But sometimes, I’m looking for a little adventure. This is usually a less-planned, more spontaneous type of art-going. I’ll hear about a show from a friend, or I’ll know one of the artists having an opening somewhere. Maybe I’ll see a postcard at the coffee shop or something in the local Alt Weekly will catch my eye and look interesting. I’m pickier about these offerings – it’s either gotta look REALLY cool, or it’s gotta be free. I’m usually willing to take a risk with my time or my money, but not both. These sorts of shows are usually the smaller ones, and I can visit them in an hour or two, rather than giving up a huge chunk of my day.
So what does this teach me about the kind of theater that people want to see? I’m guessing that since I’m not an “art world insider,” my art consumption habits are pretty similar to the average theater-goer’s. I’m mostly looking for something I know I’m going to like, or something I think I should see because it’s Important. My Warhol and Rodin are someone else’s Shakespeare and Shaw. If I’m looking for something a little out of the ordinary, then I’m willing to risk a little, but not a lot. I’ll be looking for a gallery that I feel like I can trust because they’ve shown work that’s consistently appealed to me before. I may jump on a show because the subject or the medium appeals to me. Or maybe I’ll go because I heard a story on the radio or read it in the paper, and I learned about something new and want to see it for myself. Or my favorite – I’ll go to a festival or fair. Maybe 90% of it’ll be blah, but those one or two awesome gems will make it feel worth it.

So what do we learn from this?

1: Some shows will sell themselves. Well-known (but not overdone) pieces will draw an audience from name recognition. An a-list star will do the same. For those shows, all you have to do is make sure that people know about them, set the ticket price, and get the hell out of the way. The only corollary to this point is that if your show is bad, word will get out fast.

2: If you have something less well known or a little weird, education and word of mouth are key. Sometimes that means that the fact that your playwright won an Oscar should get top billing, even if you feel like a whore doing it. Sometimes that means getting the news media interested in the story of your show, or in some aspect of the production. Theaters set their seasons months ahead of time, and they can use that time to educate their audience and raise some excitement. There are lots of ways to do this. Some are obvious and everyone does them – fliers, mailings, emails with info about the production. Some require time and money, but could have a huge payoff. Stage a reading a year ahead of time, to get people interested in the script. Host a lecture on the topic. Run a book club or a meet-up to discuss shows before they start. Use social media to present facts, or detail the rehearsal process, or make a trailer like a movie.

3: The flip side of educating your standard audience on a new topic – find people who love the topic and tell them about the show. Offer amenities (beyond group ticket prices) for hobby clubs. Doing a show about the civil war? Contact re-enactment groups and history departments. Is your main character Galileo? Reach out to astronomy societies and advertise at the local planetarium. If you can get THEM excited about the show, they will help you sell it to others.

4: This is the one that always hurts the worst – be willing to be flexible about ticket prices. If your ticket costs $60, you have to work really hard to make your potential audience $60 worth of enthusiastic. Now, for some shows that will be easy – see point #1. But #2 and 3 will be a harder sell. A non-traditional audience will look at that and balk. They might be more amenable to $40. There’s a tricky cost-benefit analysis to do here, and it’ll take a little bit of strict experimentation to get a good feeling for what the market will bear. This is complicated by two things. The first is that if 15 people are willing to pay $60 in the first week and love the show, they may go out and convince 30 others to go. But if twenty people see it for $40, they could convince 40, 50, or 60 others who wouldn’t consider it at $60 but can do $40. The second is the demoralizing effect that empty seats have on both the actors and the audience. People don’t like to see plays in empty houses, and the actors perform better with big, responsive audiences. It’s a better show for everyone once a certain percentage of the house is filled.

I guess this advice is mostly for the large theaters like the FART. Most of the little companies I deal with already do many of these things. There are so many of them, and they have to work hard to get the butts in the seats and the bills paid. The big theaters are accustomed to a subscription model that guarantees them an audience, and I think that our generation of theater-goers is moving away from making that kind of expensive and long-term commitment. As an institution we have to make them trust us to do good work consistently, and if we can’t deliver on that promise they lose faith, and start being picky about what they’re going to see. It’s time to woo them back – with the quality of the work, the integrity of the theater, thorough and creative educational support, and competitive  pricing. It’s the only way we will survive.

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She walks in beauty, like the night

   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
   Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
   Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
   Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
   Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
   How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
   So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
   But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
   A heart whose love is innocent!
George Gordon, Lord Byron

This poem, dredged from old days as an English major, has been playing through my head for the last couple of days. The celebration of these two are always the most problematic for me, because I think they’re the least straightforward. Flowers, jewelry, dancing, even luxury are open to a certain amount of interpretation, but in the end pretty concrete. Love and beauty, however, are notoriously difficult to pin down. Every year these two lead to a great deal of introspection and a certain amount of navel gazing, and in the end I do them a little differently each time.

Today I thought about beauty all day long. It ranged from the simple – putting on a favorite shirt and my moonstone earrings – to complex thoughts about the nature of art (or Art) and finding beauty in the most mundane parts of our days. I set aside the never-ending parade of chores for a few hours (work that produces its own kind of beauty) and concentrated on some projects that often get neglected but are the essence of the person I think I am. That person is a Maker, a crafter of beautiful objects and ideas, a sculptor of light, and a fashioner of grace from old, unwanted, and broken things. My workroom has been piled under a combination of junk and treasures for the last few months and essentially unusable; I’ve been working hard to get it clean for the last few weeks and I’ve finally reached a point where it’s not clean, but it’s livable. Today I played with yarn, washing and blocking the swatch for the green sweater, winding off some skeins for my next project, and putting things away. I opened up one of the boxes of my Great-Grandmother’s linens and washed a few things, and looked at how to clean and use a lovely piece of woven wool tapestry that is damaged and fragile. And I read some Byron, and thought about the ideals of beauty that people have had and changed for the last umpteen thousand years.

Yesterday was my day of Love. In Vodou, there are many Erzuli and each has her own complicated relationship with the idea of love. Erzulie Freda wears three wedding rings, one for each of her husbands. Erzulie Dantor embodies mother love, and is a protector of women and children – and often associated with lesbians. Other Erzuli deal with hiding secrets, revenging wrongs, or helping women though childbirth. Some are fierce and some coquettish, some dangerous and some nurturing. All of them love passionately, though, and all of them weep tears of pain and sorrow for the heartbroken, the wronged, and the downtrodden. I think that for all the celebration, the central image of Erzulie is of a lover with a complicated relationship to the things she loves. The practitioners of Vodou recognize with their Spirits the realities of love that are sometimes overlooked in other religious or philosophical contexts.

Love can also be controversial. All we have to do is open a newspaper, turn on the radio or tv, or do a little web surfing to find people from all ideological camps arguing about who may love whom, and how, and whether or not it is up to God, society, or individuals to even make those decisions. I certainly have strong opinions on the subject, and I’m not shy about them.  R and I are planning a September wedding, and we think it is a travesty that many of our friends and family who will be in attendance cannot enjoy the same privilege in most of our country. The entire point of the American Dream is that we strive to be more free, not less – and we certainly shouldn’t try to make others less free. Yet in the US we have a long lineage of “moral” tyranny including slavery, indentured servitude, Jim Crow, miscegenation laws, disenfranchisement of the poor, the indigent, and the different… the list goes on and on. The United States isn’t alone in this history by any stretch of the imagination, but we may be the biggest hypocrites, since our nation was founded on the preservation of individual freedoms. In Minnesota, there is an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot in November that would codify institutional homophobia here. These so-called “Marriage Amendments” have been cropping up in states all over the country, and in every state to this point the people have decided to ban same-sex marriage. It’s hard to guess what will happen here. The Twin Cities are two of the most gay-friendly in the US, and yet they’re ringed by the suburbs that elected Michelle “Pray-The-Gay-Away” Bachmann to the US Senate. People in the Upper Midwest are conservative by nature, if not by politics; I fear that those are the people who will take their uncertainty and distrust to the polls with them this fall.

I’ll wrap up this already-too-long post with a lighter note: a Litany of What I Love. These are the things that were circulating around in my head yesterday as I mulled all this stuff over.

  • R, the idea of getting married, and the joy of having a partner in life
  • The Kitties, who are still trying to kill each other but getting better
  • My family who keep me honest and my friends who enable me
  • God, in the complicated way that you come to after many years of disagreement
  • Having a job where they pay me to play
  • Having space of my own and time in which to work
  • And last, myself, my journey, and the gratitude I have for life

Thanks for hanging through this whole thing with me. See you tomorrow for DANCING!

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The End of the Rainbow set as seen from my spot behind the light board.

 

I spent this week in tech.

 

For the theatrically minded of my readers, you know what that means. For those of you who aren’t (bless you!), let me ‘splain. No, is too long. Let me sum up.

A play goes through several stages (ha!) before it opens to the public. First, the actors and director sit around a table, talking about the script and learning about the world it takes place in. Then , the actors get on their feet and the ensemble begins to put together what eventually will become the show. After two to four weeks of this (depending on the theater), the show goes into technical rehearsals – and that’s where I get involved.

Different theaters handle this process differently, but all of them do it. It’s the time when the work that the actors and director have been doing in rehearsal meet the work that the designers and technicians have been doing, sometimes for months ahead of time. The actors put on their costumes, pick up their real props, and walk on to the set for the first time. And this is when the lighting team kicks it into overdrive and makes sure that the audience can see what’s happening on stage.

Of course it’s more complicated than that, but you get the basic idea. For a week, we sit in a dark room figuring out how all these disparate pieces fit together. It’s when a play ceases to be about one thing and becomes a conglomeration. Each department does their job so single-mindedly for so long that by the time we get here, it’s a struggle to let go and commit ourselves to the group process – but we do, every time. Art is all about ego, but theater has to be all about letting go of that ego for it to work.

As a lowly technician, I get to be pretty devoid of ego most of the time. I show up, I type like a madwoman on that weird computer for ten or twelve hours, and I go home so I can do it all again the next day. As a stagehand, your job is to sit on your ego as hard as you can in the service of someone else’s vision. And frankly? That’s ok with me, most of the time. I’ve worked on this end of things for about ten years and I’ve learned a lot about myself in that time. I’ve worked on the other end, too – the designer end, the vision end – and both have value.

There’s a certain kind of poetry in sitting back and facilitating the process for someone else. It took me a long time to figure that out. When I started this job as a fresh-out-of-college know-it-all in 2001, I was two things: cocky about my artistic ability, and terrified that someone would figure out that as a technician I was a fraud. In the intervening 10 years, I’ve flipped sides. I’ve worked for some of the great geniuses of American and European lighting design (as I am on this show), and I’ve learned something new each and every show. Sometimes I’ve been able to use those tricks in my own work and sometimes I’ve filed them away for later, but what’s become starkly clear to me is that there is still SO MUCH I have to learn, and so many amazing people to learn it from. At the same time, I’ve pushed and worked and struggled to become a better technician, a better programmer, and a better stagehand. At this point in my career, I think I’ve done pretty well. There’s always more to learn, new things to try, and new technology to get my hands on and tinker with. Still, I’ve developed what I’ll call the Stagehand Soul – the ability to sit with the same show day in and day out for 40, 50, 60, even 90 performances and make each one matter.

There’s a lot to be said on that topic that will wait for another post. My point is that it takes skill and care to work ten- to 14-hour days for two weeks straight creating something, and then relax into doing the same exact thing every day, exactly the same way, for the next six weeks after that. When I describe my job to other people, I tell them that it’s 90% boredom and 10% sheer panic. It’s not quite that stark, but the sentiment is there. It’s about being able to focus all your attention to a pinpoint and hold it there for longer than we humans are naturally inclined to do, and then turn all that intensity off and find a zen state from which to operate for the rest of the run. It’s very primordial in its purest form, very evolutionarily relevant. We undergo stress and engage our fight-or-flight reflexes for a period of time, and then we get to enjoy a period of relaxation. Tech is a bit like running away from a lioness on the veldt – you focus, or you get eaten. But you can’t stay that way forever. Eventually, the gazelle finds a safe place to eat, to drink, to rest. She stays there and gathers her strength, because she knows eventually the lion will come back. Both of those states are essential to the process. They create a normal rhythm that brings us artists into tune with the rest of nature.

 

Of course, I make all of this far more grandiose than it needs to be. Functionally, we’re all a bunch of kids who have somehow gotten someone to give us money to do what we love. We show up every day because we don’t want to know what the world would be like without someone to tell its stories. Or to tell it stories. We’re grateful to be those people.

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