Episode 12 – Stage Direction with SallyPAL host Sally Adams

Stage Direction
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.


Sally on Stage Talks to Cast

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. And how 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.

Ernie Kovacs and TV Art

Ernie Kovacs
Image by geminicollisionworks via Flickr

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.

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NPR Story on the release of the new Ernie Kovacs anthology

Part 2 (of 4) – Reconceptualizing Education

Educational innovator, Dr. Jim Taylor, Huffington Post blogger and author of twelve books on parenting, education, and sports psychology, asserts that it’s time we trade in the S.T.E.M. educational model “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”and, as he puts it, “Broaden our focus into S.T.A.M.P.E.R… which stands for Science, Technology, Arts, Mathematics, Physical (activity), Emotions, and Reason.”

Everyone admits the current system is inadequate to the future we envision, but changing anything often means spending money.  Right now, with districts cutting everything from teacher salaries and jobs to closing entire schools, folks cannot imagine affording any kind of sweeping change.  It causes many reform-minded administrators to lose heart.  Taylor argues for the inclusion of the arts in the new model because, “Inventive thinking cannot be “taught” in the traditional sense of the word, but it can be experienced and nurtured through the various forms of artistic expression.”  Experience, free play, and the freedom to fail and recreate a project is not unique to the arts but arts teachers understand better than most the value of these concepts.  Without ‘failure freedom’ actors would hesitate to get on stage.  Without the experience of playing with a particular medium, an artist might not consider combining it with another medium to create a new form.  Recreation is essential in dance where an artist must return to a piece again and again to perfect her physical communication.

Dr. Taylor is recently fond of pointing out that success in education begins before school starts.  In addition to supportive families and a loving home environment, he supports free play and recess for the development of children’s imaginations and he is definitely interested in encouraging kids to push themselves hard enough to fail.

Our most famous innovators would certainly agree that free play and social creativity, ‘freedom failure’, and experience make for success in nearly every field..  Henry Ford was interested in social creativity.  He once said, “I am looking for a lot of people who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.”  Thomas Edison was known for monetizing his failures.  He famously noted, “I make more mistakes than anyone else I know, and sooner or later, I patent most of them.”  And Pablo Picasso remarked, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Perhaps Taylor is not saying anything particularly new and fresh, but if enough educators such as Taylor speak out about these common sense strategies we may finally begin to reconceptualize education for the 21st century.  We may indeed learn to honor the current generation’s needs more than we honor education’s poorly performing past.

Arts Education Advocates Speak Out

A block of marble reveals a secret

I am sharing some insights by a few profound thinkers on the subject of arts education.  I hope you will find these ideas though-provoking.  Please let me know what you think.  If you have a quote that should be included, share it in your comment.

The Disappearing Arts

“In America, we do not reserve arts education for privileged students or the elite. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students anywhere except at school. President Obama recalls that when he was a child ‘you always had an art teacher and a music teacher. Even in the poorest school districts everyone had access to music and other arts.’

Today, sadly, that is no longer the case.”

– U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, April 9, 2010

 

The Integrated Arts

“The arts in the schools do not, cannot, and should not exist in isolation.  They necessarily must operate in the framework of general education.  When they are part of the curriculum of American schools – and this cannot be taken for granted – inevitably they are there because they give students an indispensable educational dimension… The arts are affiliated with the schools’ important responsibility to pass on civilization.”

-from Strong Arts, Strong Schools by Charles Fowler
1996 Oxford University Press

 

The Arts Equation

“Education minus art? Such an equation equals schooling that fails to value ingenuity and innovation. The word art, derived from an ancient Indo-European root that means “to fit together,” suggests as much. Art is about fitting things together: words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs.

It is both a form of serious play governed by rules and techniques that can be acquired through rigorous study, and a realm of freedom where the mind and body are mobilized to address complex questions — questions that, sometimes, only art itself can answer: What is meaningful or beautiful? Why does something move us? How can I get you to see what I see? Why does symmetry provide a sense of pleasure?”

-Jeffrey T. Schnapp is director of the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, a prominent cultural historian of the 20th century, and a frequent curator of art exhibitions in Europe and the United States.

 

The Squandered Arts

“All kids have tremendous talents and we squander them pretty ruthlessly… We (educators) stigmatize mistakes… We are educating people out of their creative capacities… We don’t grow into creativity, we are educated out of it.”

-Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources.

 

The Teaching Arts

“Learning to think within the affordances and constraints of the material is one of the things that the arts teach… we can look at the arts as tasks which develop the mind because of the kinds of thinking that they evoke, practice and develop… What we need in American education is not for the arts to look more like the academics… but for the academics to look more like the arts.”

-Elliot W. Eisner, Lee Jacks Professor of Education and professor of art at Stanford University, speaking in September 2006 on “What Do the Arts Teach?”

The Arts, Not Testing Practice, Improve Test Scores

“We started to treat the arts program like we treat all the other departments that matter in our school.”  That’s what Rose Greco, literacy coach, for  MS 223 in New York City says about the reason for the success of the School Arts Support Initiative (SASI) in her school.  An article in the February 2011 issue of Middle Ground (the National Middle School Association‘s practitioners’ magazine) features a different kind of educational program.  In 2008 the Center for Arts Education launched, “a multiyear research project in four New York City middle schools that provided little or no arts education.” The program began having immediate results.  According to the article, “The impact was apparent in improved student attendance and social behaviors. Results on local and standardized tests showed greater overall proficiency. The culture of each school began to change. Faculty members, administrators, and visiting artists noticed the changes… Attendance has improved dramatically… English Language Arts scores improved despite less time devoted to test preparation… Suspensions declined. Students have also acquired artistic skills that have increased their likelihood of being accepted to arts-focused high schools.”  In this video from MS 223, staff members reveal the reasons they believe the program works:

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With Desire, Nearly Anything is Teachable

Bill Evans and Derek Amato have these keys in common

Until 1980 when he died, Bill Evans was one of the most important and influential jazz musicians of the modal style.  I used to pretend to be into jazz in college but only recently (and I’ve been out of college a long time) have I really been able to appreciate the improvisational styles of the 1960’s and early 70’s.  There were a couple of styles from that period that competed for attention and they are referred to as free jazz and modal style.  Evans’ influence is still felt among young composers in the modal style.  Evans seemed really interested in teaching young musicians as well as  allowing them to discover their styles independently.  He also had some things to say about self-teaching after he graduated from college with a teaching degree in 1950.  In a 1966 interview with his brother Harry Evans from the television program, “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”,  he described his growth as a musician, “I don’t consider myself as talented as many people, but in some ways that was an advantage… I didn’t have a great facility immediately and in a way it forced me to build something.”

Compare Evans’ statement to the  fantastic story of the sudden savant, Derek Amato who suffered a brain injury after diving into a swimming pool to catch a football.  Derek recently visited the Mayo Clinic to film a Discovery special concerning his sudden ability to play the piano.  According to Derek, before his accident he had “never even touched a piano.”  In contrast to Bill Evans,  Amato says of his own experience, “I still can’t read music or tell you where the notes are.  All I know is the black keys are flat.  I don’t even know what I’m going to play each time I sit down… but since my accident, the notes just pour out of me.”  Amato can’t seem to stay away from pianos.  From the moment he touched one after his accident he could not stop.  He plays for hours at a time because now his desire is so great.  Although he doesn’t read music, he composes intricate pieces on the fly and plays by ear.  It’s as though what he is experiencing is an end run around the conscious brain to the unconscious mind where style and substance meet.

Bill Evans referred to this as a universal mind.  Evans discussed the need for intense musical study in order to free the mind to go where it can create freely.  “I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal musical mind.  Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people.”

Evans’ theory is similar to what Stephen Nachmanovitch has to say in his book on creativity titled Saving the Cat in one way:  They both believe artists are especially adept at tapping a part of the mind where creativity lies.  Nachmanovitch makes the case that the spark of creativity comes first and can be followed by intense study of the medium, “The important thing is to start someplace, anyplace. Then we can play with, refine, elaborate the original statement until it pleases us. Before the dance of inspiration and perspiration can begin, there must be some raw material, some spark of inciting energy.”  Although both believe in allowing the language of creativity to lead the way, Evans suggests the intense study of technique must precede the creative event while Nachmanovitch believes the creative event must inspire the desire to study artistic technique.  I tend to lean toward Nachmanovitch’s theory but at some point the two, technique and creative expression, begin to tumble downhill one over the other, picking up speed until together the two take flight as one creative event.  Technique informs expression which inspires the artist to hone his technique.

In Amato’s case of sudden savantism, his expression has inspired him to begin to study song structure, music theory and technique.  But his condition allows him to create endless amazing compositions without knowing anything at all about music.  He creates freely without the hindrance of a lack of skill.  For the rest of us though, there seem to be two pathways for creative expression: to have a germ of an idea and pursue it passionately, learning the medium as you go or to imagine a desired outcome and learn the medium necessary to achieve the vision.  Ultimately, it will occur as a holistic experience.  In fact it might be difficult to determine where one approach ends and another begins.  In fact, the immersion in the creative pursuit makes the division unnecessary.  It really doesn’t matter how you do your art when you’re in your element.  The same artist may approach different projects in different ways.  It’s the joy of creation that ultimately informs the effort.  The freedom an artist experiences makes her want to continue to pursue the art.  Although their styles and approaches to music are different, Bill Evans and Derek Amato have in common their creative freedom and desire.  And as a teacher I have learned my most useful tool is a student’s desire.  With desire, nearly anything is teachable.

Hungry for Ideas

Albert Eistein was a fun guy.
Einstein in a Silly Mood.

What education in general has been saying to our students is: “You’re here to learn about your culture but not impact it.”  But the progressive educator is saying to his students, “Go out and make a statement, make a difference, interpret,  inspire and elucidate!”  The mentor is all about inspiring his students to make an impact.  Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

One of the assumptions of the past is that the more knowledge we collect, the more educated we are.  This is a form of education but, unless students draw conclusions and really think about and link these bits and bobs of information found on tests, there is no real learning.  Despite the fear mongering concerning our students’ test performance, there is, and always has been, a basic human hunger for learning.  This is most evident in the meteoric rise in popularity of TEDtalks.

If you haven’t seen a TEDtalk yet, I invite you to take a look at one of the more than 700 15-20 minute talks on every subject imaginable.  It is very likely that you will find more than one TEDtalk to feed your brain.  I treat these nuggets of delicious learning like mind candy.  You shouldn’t view too many in a row, they are so rich with information, your system might get overstimulated.  But one a day or a couple a week; this is good for your soul.  I recently viewed a TEDtalk by TED Media Director, June Cohen.  In her presentation she notes, “In the  last 4 years TED has put 700 talks online for free and these talks have been viewed 300 million times.” This really speaks to the hunger we have for good ideas.

If life was only a fact-collecting expedition we would lose interest before we hit puberty.  We are hungry, but not for facts.  We are hungry for ideas.  Because TEDtalks are a forum for the spread of ideas, in 2006 TEDtalks went online free of charge.  The single stated goal was “to spread ideas.” On the website there is a list clarifying this goal:

* An idea can be created out of nothing except an inspired imagination.

* An idea weighs nothing.

* It can be transferred across the world at the speed of light for virtually zero cost.

* And yet an idea, when received by a prepared mind, can have extraordinary impact.

* It can reshape that mind’s view of the world.

* It can dramatically alter the behavior of the mind’s owner.

* It can cause the mind to pass on the idea to others.

The goal of the foundation is to foster the spread of great ideas… Core to this goal is a belief that there is no greater force for changing the world than a powerful idea.”

This interest in ideas gets at the core of being human, alive and on the planet.  What is the purpose of education?  Currently, it is an institution based on a cultural-economic model whose time has come and gone, yet we cling to this format as though we are waiting for Godot.   Unlike libraries, schools often point to a small collection of core knowledge and tell the student to “memorize that”.  While I believe in mentoring and providing educational focus, I also think schools are not the last word in learning.

Learning happens wherever there is an open mind.  Take, for instance, libraries, those repositories of learning where a person can choose independently what to learn.  Anyone from anywhere can walk into a public library and take a book off any shelf and read it.  Before the Internet, this was our main public access to ideas.  Providing public access to ideas sometimes creates anxiety for people in power.  Recent troubles for Google in China illustrate this still exists.  Fear of public access to ideas did not  start with Google, however.

David Greene of National Public Radio tells the story of an age before libraries were common: “There was a time in Britain, say 160 years ago, when some in Parliament didn’t believe in public libraries at all. The worry was, if the working class read books, it would get dangerous ideas and rise up against the government.” This dire prediction, of course, never came to pass.  People want access to learning for reasons that supersede politics, domestic life and work.  People want access to ideas in order to grow.

Albert Einstein had quite a lot to say about education and learning.  His opinions may be based on the fact that his grades in school were so poor that a teacher told him he would never amount to much and he dropped out of school at age 15.  He later said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”  There are so many examples of great thinkers being told by their teachers they would fail.  The very people at the heart of the education institution have misidentified some of the greatest minds in history.  Isaac Newton faired poorly in grade school and also failed at running the family farm.  Ludwig van Beethoven’s music teacher once said, “As a composer, he is hopeless.” As a child Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything.  Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade.   It seems obvious to us in hind site these teachers were mistaken.  They noticed a child thinking differently and labeled the child as “wrong thinking”.  We are so often quick to judge the flexible mind.  It is, somehow, easier to call a child ‘slow’ when they might be thinking so fast we are unable to keep up with them.  Let’s encourage these crazy ideas and look for ways to make our teaching relevant.  As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Saving the Cat

Author of Free Play
The artist expresses an idea

Stephen Nachmanovitch has some amazing things to say about creating.  He plays improvisational viola d’amore… go figure.  He also writes music, articles, books and computer programs.  Nachmanovitch has spoken and performed around the world while firmly pushing the boundaries of creativity.  He sometimes blends his various interests creating new ideas, new music, new art and new approaches to technology.  He appeals to me lately as I am increasingly interested in artists who excel in more than one venue.  Decades ago I worked for the Performing Arts Center in my hometown and the building’s secretary told me that artists always seem to have more than one area of artistic expression.  We often had well-known stage performers traveling through and actors, singers and dancers would inevitably be interested in our art galleries and local architecture.  This speaks to the idea that though we can express ideas in a particular discipline and become skilled in one area, once we have let the artistic cat out of the bag it will be into everything.  Once you experience the euphoria of creation in one way, you find yourself reaching for other tools of expression.  The dancer takes voice lessons, the painter takes a stab at a novel,  the poet with a lump of clay in her hands, are all imaginable.  Nachmanovitch makes the point that mastery of an art is the “soul expressing itself.”  Ultimately, it is the expression within the discipline that captures the imagination.

“Creativity is the soul expressing itself, in speech, gesture, sound, color, movement, building, inventing. Before all else it is simply to be able to say something. That’s one of the great mysteries in both art and everyday life: how something appears from nothing. After something is said, all kinds of tricks and techniques can be applied to make our work more artful… The important thing is to start someplace, anyplace. Then we can play with, refine, elaborate the original statement until it pleases us. Before the dance of inspiration and perspiration can begin, there must be some raw material, some spark of inciting energy.”

from Saving the Cat by Stephen Nachmanovitch

Stephen Nachmanovitch performs and teaches internationally as an improvisational violinist and violist, and at the intersections of music, dance, theater, and multimedia arts.