Actor-Director-Playwright Michael Wright and I explore risky venues. We chat about finding your creative voice. We also talk about taking a chance with your writing and staging your original work.
Michael and I discuss how to draw an audience into your world.
University of Tulsa professor Michael Wright is a theatre director, actor, teacher, and playwright. His theatrical work plays with form, audience interaction, and uncommon theatre venues. Michael authored Playwriting in Process, Playwriting Master Class, and Sensory Writing for Stage and Screen. He received awards for his work as a teacher of playwriting from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and the Kennedy Center.
During the podcast, you’ll hear us talk about the Tulsa Artists’ Coalition Gallery. We also mention Playwright David Blakely. David currently serves as the Playwright in Residence for Tulsa’s Heller Theatre. I’ll feature David in a later episode.
Michael and I reminisced about Sam Shepherd and his play True West (which he saw at Steppenwolf). Michael also mentioned the WomenWorks program for female playwrights in graduate school. I didn’t include links to that program as you must be selected for it. If you are a woman in grad school, talk to your playwriting professor. Mention the University of Tulsa playwriting competition for graduate women playwrights, WomenWorks.
Be sure to listen until the end of the interview for Concise Advice from the Interview. Stay until the end for Words of Wisdom from George. I sometimes even include my bloopers.
SallyPAL can now be found on Acast, Blubrry, GooglePlay, and iTunes. I’m also on Overcast, PlayerFM, Pocketcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and, of course, my host platform, Podbean. Check out Podbean the week of November 27 when Podbean features the SallyPAL podcast!
If you sign up for the mailing list, you’ll get a free insert for your creator’s notebook. It’s a list of people you’ll need to help you produce your show along with some great links to more in-depth information.
In Episode 12, I enlist my husband George (the coolest guy on the planet) to ask questions about stage direction. I cover how to approach work when you are a beginning director, how to collaborate without giving away your job to enthusiastic performers and staff, and how a director can make an impact on an audience.
What’s the most important advice for a successful collaboration? Communicate with your stage direction team. They can keep you on point while they lighten the load.
What’s the best way for a beginning director to approach stage direction? Start small and keep it simple. We used to say, “Keep It Simple, Stupid” or K.I.S.S. Now we say, “Keep It Simple, Simon.” It’s nicer.
What’s the most important thing for a director to remember? The Story, The Story, The Story. Everything we do must serve the story. That truly is all there is. We are, after all, story tellers.
What does it mean to create a safe space in terms of stage direction. Andhow would you do that? It’s about maintaining a rehearsal environment where actors feel free to collaborate. It doesn’t serve anyone if your team is afraid to express their ideas in what is, essentially, a creative space.
What do the most successful directors do that we can emulate?Collaborate while maintaining the vision. For the director, the vision is what holds the whole together; set, lighting, costumes, performances, script. Without vision, these are a jumble of pieces that don’t necessarily go together.
What is the unseen work in stage direction? A good director will spend a lot of time with the script. They will also talk to designers and other staff before performers are selected. Do your stage direction homework. Solid front end work saves time and creates confidence in your performers.
How can directors make an impact on an audience? Have a clear visual notion of the story you are telling. Design cohesion in stage direction means paying attention to details and honoring the work of collaborators. Everyone’s contribution counts as long as everyone is building the same world.
Birthing the Crone
You will often hear women (and men) bemoaning the lack of meaty roles for women in film, TV, and on stage. I agree, yet I do so with a caveat: Meaty roles for women written by women are different from the meaty women’s roles written by men. This is not to suggest in any way that men are unable to write for women. My son is a damned good playwright who writes women’s roles with great sensitivity and insight. Yet, much as an elevator stop in the sub basement, performing your own work written from your unique perspective reveals new mysteries.
A Writer Observes
Writing a play about someone else’s life experience seems like a tough job. It’s especially hard when writing for more than one character. Consequently, the writer’s own experience gets spread like peanut butter over every character. This character speaks from your high school point of view. And this character says things you wanted to say to your grandmother but didn’t get the chance. And this character speaks from the feelings wrapped around a moment of deep embarrassment, or grief, or shock. The payoff comes because we improve our skills of observation. Lisa Wilson embodies this skill.
Birthing the Crone
I interview actor, director, playwright, and University of Tulsa Women’s Studies professor, Lisa Wilson. Lisa acts as playwright, performer, director, and producer of her own work. As a result, she shares her observations with a live audience. It sets her work apart from the performances of actors depicting lives written by other playwrights. Because Lisa so richly embodies the character based on her own life, you forget you’re watching a play.
Lisa Wilson – Old Crone with a New Voice
Furthermore, Lisa is a recipient of the prestigious Jingle Feldman Individual Artist Award for her original one-woman show, “Only Four People Know About This”. “Birthing the Crone” is the second play in a series titled, “The Crone Chronicles”. Lisa based the series on her experiences of aging and loss with some hilarious and vulnerable insights. Finally, we talk about women’s voices and the effect of life’s changes on the artistic process.
Ayah Bdeir at TED: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach How does approaching a complex problem with the mind of a child elicit fresh, creative, accessible new things? Ayah Bdeir, an artist/engineer looked at Legos and was inspired to consider transistors in a new way. I have often told my students that art is a unique expression of a universal idea. This broadens the concept of art significantly. If we want to inspire creative thinking, we must be willing to encourage and celebrate differentness and its contribution to the creative process. Diversity, a buzzword for racial and gender integration, takes on powerful meaning in the world of art and education. Diversity is a necessity for artists. But children who are different often feel at odds with a system that rewards sameness. I look at a classroom full of middle school kids and I sometimes wonder if teaching them how to work to a standard is one way to let them off the hook. Kids do the minimum required rather than push for greater understanding, deeper knowledge, and personal best skill development. Once a student recognizes the objectives of the academic game, he or she is free to play at any level. If good grades are the goal, many savvy learners do what is required to get to the goal, but no more. For those not interested in the game, playing at academics is boring, annoying, or off the radar. For those who have been trained to believe their grades have some connection to an individual’s character quality, the game of school can produce paralyzing anxiety.
How do we, as educators, provide the assessments kids want without attaching them to a child’s self-worth? This non-judgmental assessment feature is no fantasy. Children who play video games live in a world of action assessment. When a character dies on a video screen as a result of a lack of skill or knowledge, there is rarely a response like some I have seen in school when children do poorly on tests. The gamer’s reaction to a lack of skill is to get better at the game whether through repetition, research, or online cheats (don’t be fooled by the name; cheats have their own learning curve). When the expectations for schoolwork reach beyond skill building and touch the sensitive nerves around a student’s developing sense of self, there is room for reassessment of our assessment tools.
Rather than push for homogeny, we could reward new ways of thinking. The weird girl who thinks differently will be included at lunch because the school’s environment embraces and rewards her contributions. The weird boy who daydreams will be lured into conversations to mine his mind for unique ideas that cause an upward spiral of abstract thought in the classroom. We have a role to play as teachers in creating an environment where divergence is no longer frowned upon but encouraged. In fact, we now know it is this divergent thinking that creates great ideas such as Legos and littleBits. It’s about time we stop rewarding imitation. Let’s celebrate the weird kids and give everyone permission to reveal his or her diversity.
After a summer vacation-inspired hiatus, I am back in the saddle to begin Monday-Wednesday-Friday blogging again on the subject of creativity and education. I attended a “creativity summit” a week ago for my city where Robert Sternberg, one of my favorite educators, was the keynote speaker. I invited two of my kids to come and listen and express their opinions in the group discussion portion of the day. The purpose of the event was not stated in any of the literature I received. This, otherwise, was an interesting and edifying event. Apparently, creativity is not as easily discussed as it is… experienced. The best part of the day for my kids was a break out session where they found a creative way to answer a prompt concerning education and creativity. During the lecture portion of the day, speaker after speakertook to the stage and talked about their various projects. Some were more on point than others. I could have listened to Sternberg talk all day. He is funny and interesting and has a lot to say about education and the creative life. The flow of the discussion meandered from outdoor architectural spaces to multicultural representation to how we compare with the other metropolis in our state and who in the country is ahead of us (creatively speaking). One of the most interesting speakers was architect Shawn Michael Schaefer. According to the literature he is the Director of the University of Oklahoma Urban Design Studio and a faculty member of the College of Architecture. The loose discussion was interesting but at the same time it felt a little disjointed. I later learned this summit is only a starting point for more and deeper discussions. If the support at this particular meeting is an indicator, this could be the beginning of a very exciting creative period in my city.
I first learned of Ernie Kovacs on a random stop in 1984 when I stumbled into the New York Radio and Television Museum. I was dumbfounded when I learned I could view old Kinescopes of shows I had never even heard of. A docent recommended an Ernie Kovacs kinescope and I was hooked. I spent a couple of hours looking at rare footage and falling in love with his childlike spirit and risk-taking comedy. As an arts teacher I am constantly in search of ways to show my students what artistic expression can be. Ernie Kovacs used the medium of television the way Picasso used brush and canvas or Julie Taymor uses the stage. Unfortunately, for Kovacs, his legacy is only just now being heralded with a release of a retrospective by Shout! Factory. He was a clear creative genius at a time when his talent found a voice in a brand new medium of expression. His ideas and the medium were new. Everything about his art was difficult to assess as there was no precedent for what he was doing. This lack of a grade or measuring stick made it possible for Kovacs to play as a child would play. It was a gift to television and comedy in general that he create fearlessly. Some ideas failed, others were before their time and still others kept his fans tuning in and his fan base growing. To this day there are numerous iterations and flat-out copies of his work. His comedy is as fresh and funny as it was when he was competing with Uncle Milty, Jack Benny, Steve Allen and Danny Thomas for laughs. Television comedy is an art form that doesn’t garner a great deal of respect. But if you are interested in seeing the work of a true artist regardless of the art form, consider giving Ernie Kovacs your attention.
This series could go on indefinitely but I thought I should wrap up this segment on reconceptualizing education with an idea. Reconceptualizing isn’t just about innovating. It’s about how and why we innovate. So, instead of featuring an education innovator from the national stage, today I want to acknowledge the innovation of teachers a little closer to home. Last night I attended what we refer to at my school as School Out of Doors or SOOD for short. For my team, it was a chance to take 70 7th grade students into the wilderness with tents and sleeping bags and create something memorable for the class of 2016. But we live in the only state about which Will Rogers famously said, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait five minutes.” With sudden thunderstorms, threats of baseball-sized hail and an eerie tornado warning, we spent our School Out of Doors INdoors. While sirens were blaring outside, we gathered the kids into a cinderblock hallway near the gym and sat them on the floor with all their belongings. The amazing part to me is due to the calm and positive response of the teachers, all the students behaved as though this was an expected part of the weekend. They played cards, sat and talked with friends, read books and seemed genuinely happy to be in a hot, dark, smelly, cramped hallway with 70 of their closest friends. When it became clear there would be no night hike, cooking over a flame, or outdoor games, the 7th grade teachers sprang into action. Okay, maybe we didn’t spring, but we all had a trick or two up our sleeves. The Dean set up a projector and sound system to show a movie on the gym wall to rival any drive in. Parents brought in pizzas, the 7th grade teachers helped the students create an indoor campsite complete with tents and flashlight games. In the morning, they supervised the breakdown of the campsite treating it as they would any clean up they would have to manage in the woods. This morning we took our students to the school’s courtyard where they made pancakes on camping stoves and ate off tin plates. There were buckets of suds outside the library where the kids washed their dishes and after eating they broke down the cook sites. It may not sound wildly innovative but in light of the circumstances the teachers were creative, innovative, encouraging and modeling a critical skill; flexibility.
As teachers and parents we often get caught up in the outcomes game. If the outcomes don’t match our expectations, there is disappointment and frustration. We too often pass this culture of inconvenience to our kids. What would it take to change the mindset that has us become irritable when things don’t go as planned? If we could make that important adjustment and teach our kids that a change in plans doesn’t have to be negative, we would create a generation of curious and motivated innovators. I’m all for making plans and following through, but if change is necessary or a better idea reveals itself, shouldn’t we be vigilant and prepared to shift gears?
Smart Dust, now used as a tool in destroying tumors, was a graduate student’s ruined homework. At USC, Jamie Link accidentally blew up a silicon chip. Because she was vigilant, she discovered properties in the detritus that made her famous in medical circles providing a previously unknown cure. The Popsicle, invented by Frank Epperson, was a result of a mess left outside when Epperson was 11 years old. He left a drink with a stir stick on his front porch. The cold night left him with a frozen treat on a stick the next morning. He patented the dessert two decades later much to the relief of kids everywhere with sore throats. In 1928, Alexander Fleming‘s experiment with bacteria was ruined, or so he thought, when mold showed up in the Petri dish. His vigilance allowed him to see where bacteria were avoiding the mold. This led him to a discovery that has saved millions of lives. Penicillin was the first antibiotic and his flexibility and open mind allowed him to create something exponentially better than what he had initially intended.
The most important lesson we can learn about innovation is this: If we are vigilant, a change in plans can produce greater results than any outcome we could have imagined. There are myriad stories of greater-than-expected outcomes in science, math, art, literature and every other academic discipline. This mindset is what we can teach our kids in an age where knowledge is secondary to creativity. As one of our greatest thinkers once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
This 19 minute TED talk is well worth your time. I have ADD and I couldn’t find a distraction that could tear me away from this man’s talk!
Charles Leadbetter is an unintentional innovator by virtue of his intense curiosity. His interest in finding out what’s available in the world of education beyond the borders of ‘sanctioned methods’ is one of the most exciting reformist efforts today. Rather than speak about education with a collection of theorists, he is out in the field on a quest. His quest is every bit as important (perhaps more so) as the panel discussions, policy debates and academic lectures. He has discovered the purest form of learning; people hungry for knowledge are using available resources to feed their hunger. What could be any more pure? This ties in with the slide show titled “Shift Happens”http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/33834 created by Karl Fisch which compares India, China and U.S. digital and educational revolutions by the numbers. It’s very provocative and I think it informs the conversation concerning what’s happening in education in rising nations.