Tag Archives: performing artists

10 Things NOT to Do as an Artist

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How to Feel Miserable as an Artist

Should Art Serve Only the Elite or Cast a Wider Net?

George Saunders

George Saunders

by Colin Dabkowski

In a profile that ran a week ago in the New York Times Magazine, Syracuse-based author George Saunders devised a little thought exercise to describe his ideal audience.

Saunders conjured 10 imaginary readers, and assumed for the sake of argument that three or four of them were already hooked on his work. Two of them, he reasoned, were lost causes that would never come around to it.

But, he continued, “If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”

Saunders, a thoughtful and gifted fiction writer, has yet to be disabused of his populist notions about literature. Thankfully for literature.

His idea – that an artist is never finished building an audience, never through striving to extend his reach to include a slightly bigger swath of humanity with each new effort – ought to be a lesson for every curator, artistic director or film festival programmer. For those struggling to strike a balance between publicly supplied revenue and artistic quality, Saunders’ words are a reminder to send out more invitations.

Saunders’ thought experiment isn’t good blanket advice for artists, who should be free to create work without even thinking about an audience if they so desire. But it’s great advice for those of us charged with building pathways to that art or uncovering its meaning.

Saunders’ idea – to try harder – sounds remarkably simple, and it is. But its repetition is necessary in a cultural landscape densely populated by those who hold the opposing view. Take, for instance, a blurb in a recent issue of the New Yorker by dance critic Joan Acocella of a Philadelphia Art Museum exhibition about Marcel Duchamp and his American followers.

“Duchamp’s nude descended a staircase a hundred years ago. [John] Cage sat down and didn’t play ‘4’33’ sixty years ago. [Merce] Cunningham stuck his foot into [Jasper] John’s ‘Numbers’ fifty years ago,” she wrote, ticking off some of the landmark moments in modernist art, music and dance of the 20th century. “Most of the public is never going to like such things. Most of the public doesn’t like modernism. Let it be.”

The idea of giving up, of allowing the audience for Duchamp or any other living or dead artist to remain a tiny, circumscribed elite is antithetical not only to the goal of public museums and of criticism, but to the work of many of those artists. And yet it persists, born of a notion of artistic elitism rooted in a distant era.

The mention of concerted audience-building is met with cynicism or viewed wrongly as a de facto assault on artistic quality.

But we can never merely “let it be.” We must, as Saunders’ so wisely suggested, cast an ever-wider net.

Colin Dabkowski writes for the Buffalo News

Actors and the Power of Vulnerability

By Daniel Lehman

Does an ability to “get into character” and portray other people help actors resolve their own internal conflicts offstage? Or will the pursuit of a career that values emotional vulnerability, but at the same time involves frequent rejection, inevitably lead to poor mental health and instability?

Dr. Paula Thomson and Dr. S. Victoria Jaque of California State University, Northridge, endeavored to answer these questions in “Holding a Mirror Up to Nature: Psychological Vulnerability in Actors,” a study published this month in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Over the course of several years, the researchers surveyed a sample of 41 professional actors in Los Angeles; Toronto, Ontario; and Cape Town, South Africa. The actors’ answers were compared with those of a control group of 41 non-actors.

“This study demonstrated that the actor group had greater fantasy proneness and a greater distribution of psychological security as compared with the nonartist control group,” Thomson and Jaque write. “Despite no group differences in type and frequency of trauma and loss, the actor group had more unresolved mourning and elevated dissociation.”

All of the actors surveyed had at least three years of conservatory training, all of which Thomson said was rooted in Stanislavsky’s method. They also had the common link of at least a few months of experience creating and performing “testimonial theater,” an autobiographical medium that is used most often to heal individuals and communities that have undergone major trauma. Subjects were evaluated through a 60- to 90-minute interview session.

“I think in performing artists, there’s an incredible tolerance to accept emotional abuse from people,” Thomson told Back Stage. A former dancer, she is fascinated with the psychology of actors and performing artists. “I was very struck by how aware they were about people’s emotions and how sensitive they were,” she said, “and then how unpredictable they could be.”

Thomson and Jaque speculated that experience embodying different characters in order to act out dramatized conflicts would indirectly give actors greater resolution for their own past experiences. Yet the researchers found that while actors tend to be more emotionally self-aware and secure, they are no better at getting over unresolved trauma or loss than their counterparts in the control group. In fact, the actor group was more likely to respond with confusion, silence, or halting speech when asked about past traumatic events, and they displayed “greater vulnerability for psychological distress.”

Thomson and Jaque could not determine whether an actor’s career choice was determined by his or her mental state or vice versa. The researchers are analyzing the results of a related physiological study — in which actors wore what they call a “life shirt” during interviews, stress tests, and rehearsals and onstage performances — to evaluate whether their physiology shows the same vulnerability as their psychology.

Daniel Lehman writes for Backstage