Monday, June 27, 2011

Spinning wheels

In the creative arts, where almost all measures of improvement and success are subjective and external (e.g. someone else hiring you for a role or choosing to produce your play), it is easy sometimes to feel like all the hard work you are doing to improve your craft and get ahead is getting you nowhere, that you are just spinning your wheels.

I literally spun my wheels yesterday, pedaling my bicycle for 5 hours and 30 minutes, traveling 69 miles. This was the mileage I needed to hit for June as part of my training regimen to build up to a 100 mile ride this September. In addition to gradually increasing my distances (each month I need to add at least 10 miles to the longest ride I do), I've also been working to increase my speed and hill strength. This I gauge by how fast I can do laps in Central Park (I've so far cut my time by about 5 minutes a lap from last year). This is one of the things I love about cycling - there are quantifiable ways to measure how much you are growing and improving, numbers you can look at and say "hey, I did that!"

But despite looking at all those numbers and seeing that I can go longer and harder and faster, I haven't really felt like I've been improving. The hills in Central Park still feel incredibly laborious. I still hate riding into the wind. I still feel incredibly slow next to my boyfriend (who has a bit of an advantage on me since he has been riding seriously pretty much since he could walk). Because the change is gradual, it isn't as noticeable.

But yesterday-- yesterday was one of those moments when suddenly the change was palpable. This was the longest, hardest ride I've done to date (other riders referred to the numerous hills as "brutal"), and yet it was the easiest long ride I've ever done. I had no stressful up-hill climbs where I was cursing and grunting the entire way, nor any complete blood-sugar meltdowns that cause me to crash both physically and emotionally (I have finally learned how to fuel myself for this kind of exercise). In short, this was the most funI have had on a long distance ride. Who cares about the numbers in terms of miles, elevation, average speed, calories burned, I felt great. And that is how I now know in my gut, regardless of what the numbers were saying, that I truly have improved.

So how do we apply this to the arts? Without the equivalent of a bicycle computer that tells us our average speed or how many miles we've done, how do we know we are growing as artists? The one measure we have - other people hiring us or producing our works - is so subjective and elusive as to be almost meaningless in day-to-day life, especially given how little (unfortunately) it can have to do with actual talent and skill.

I say, go for the joy. We do the arts, after all, because we enjoy it (and if we don't then we should get the hell out). I say you will know you are improving when you enjoy it more, because the better you get at your chosen pursuit, the more facile you will be with your craft, and thus more able to actually do the things you want to be able to do. To shoot only for the "job", or only for the distance or speed, is to miss the experience part of the process.

I write because I love the process of discovering a character's story. I love bringing actors in to the sphere to bring my characters to life. I love hearing what a director thinks and can bring out of my work. I love hearing an audience, how ever large or small, react to my words. While I sincerely hope to have plays produced and win a Tony someday - just as I am shooting for that 100 miles in September - I have learned the hard lesson that to do something only for that goal is absurd. The 100 miles is meaningful only if I'm having fun doing it. That's not to say I won't still hate the hills sometimes, or hate it when I am trying to write and can't seem to find the right line, but I have promised myself that I will only continue to write as long as it is bringing me joy in the balance.

For all of you who are attempting a career of some sort in the arts, I challenge you to go for the joy. If that joy also comes with lots of jobs and productions and external measures of success, that is fantastic. But if it doesn't, at least you will know you haven't just been spinning your wheels.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The art of want

I saw All's Well That Ends Well at Shakespeare in the Park last night.  It is really quite a lovely production, excellently directed and with some very strong actors (including John Cullum, who just has to be in my play Breaking Pairs someday).  It is probably one of the more simplistic plots of the Shakespeare canon, with the characters not nearly as complicated and/or intriguing as say in Midsummer Night's Dream or Macbeth.  And yet is has something that makes it live on, that makes it satisfying and enjoyable to watch: in pretty much every scene, it is very clear that each major character in that scene WANTS something, and they either get it or they don't by the end of the scene.  Most of these little wants build up towards the major "want" of the play (Helena wants Bertram to love her); some of them are subplots (the soldiers' desire to humiliate Parolles, the "clown" of the play) -- but each of them is a little nugget that helps you follow what is going on and feel the satisfaction of something being completed.  Characters who want something specific are far more interesting to watch than characters who don't (or who might but it is not clear).  I never noticed this before about Shakespeare, but now that I have, I would not be at all surprised to find this true of all of his popular plays.  I am sure that has a lot to do with why they are still done hundreds of years later and the stories retold over and over.

The presence of a character's want (or "action", as it is often referred to in theater) is something I have been noticing a lot lately.  Or rather, its absence.  I have seen a lot of theater in the last couple of weeks, from readings of brand new plays to small-scale productions of existing plays to short plays to Shakespeare, and every time one of them leaves me unsatisfied I notice the same reason: I am watching the play and not engaged and not caring about the characters because I don't know what they want from each other.  I don't really care about watching two characters talking about global politics -- as interesting as that conversation might be -- if I don't know what they are trying to get from each other by having that conversation.  It seems like such a simple thing, really, to set up what your characters want and have them fight for it during the scene, but yet it isn't always so easy to make it happen as a writer.  I have been guilty myself of not being clear on this, for sure, though I always strive for it.  But I honestly think a lot of current writers aren't even aware of this and thus aren't striving for it.

This is a very traditional view of theater I have, and I am sure many people would say it is old-fashioned and that there are great new forms of experimental theater that don't require this basic building block.  I say have at it, to those people, if they enjoy that kind of theater.  Personally, I don't.  Or very rarely.  Even Waiting for Godot -- which is supposed to be a play that breaks all these conventions because "nothing happens" -- has a very, very strong want at its core: they want to see Godot. 

My dramaturge pointed out this problem -- the lack of clear action -- with the first scene of my recent rewrite of my play, and I am especially eager now to go back and fix it.  Because I do honestly believe that this is what makes theater compelling to watch.  After all, isn't that so much of what life is?  Don't we as people always want something, even if it is as simple as "I want to eat ice cream"?  There can be a whole little drama in that moment, one of internal conflict if you are watching your weight or lactose intolerant so perhaps ice cream isn't the best choice, or external conflict if the ice cream you want is currently being consumed by someone else who wants that ice cream as much or more than you do.  

Damn it, now I want ice cream.   But it's only 10am and I already over-indulged last night on cheese.... Will I have it?  Stay tuned to find out.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Battle with Battlestar

A recent struggle between my contentment dame and my ambition brat distilled itself down to one simple question:

"Do I want to watch more Battlestar Galactica or take a writing class?" 

When worded that way, a seemingly dramatic dilemma -- swirling with weighty questions like "what kind of life do I want to be living?", "how much I want to be pushing myself?", "how much do I allow myself to relax?", "do I really want to be pursuing a writing career?" -- suddenly had a very clear answer.  Of course I want to be the person who would chose taking a writing class over watching BSG.

That said, Battlestar Galactica is an amazing show, honestly one of the best things I've seen on television (ranking up there with Buffy and Breaking Bad for my favorite series ever).  I only just discovered it, and have already managed to devour the entire first two seasons. It feels a little like a drug - pulling me, calling me, teasing me with "what happens next?" And thanks to Netflix "watch instantly", I can have a hit any time I want. So when trying to answer the question of whether or not to leave my time more unstructured this summer, I looked at how I've been spending my free time lately and feared that I wouldn't use it all to rewrite my play, to research the next play I want to write, to write some short plays, to start writing my blog again.  Nope.  If recent past was indicator of future, I was going to use too much of it watching BSG.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a little television now and then. We all need a little brain candy sometimes. But I've discovered that I don't do so well when I have free time.  The busier I am, the more stuff I manage to squeeze in.  While I manage to accomplish a hell of a lot that way, the trade off is that I can end up incredibly stressed and sleep-deprived.  But now that my work life is streamlined down to just one job that requires significantly fewer (but more intense) hours, I am sincerely hoping I can actually strike that magical, beautiful balance between getting things done and remaining (mostly) sane.

So thus begins a new phase in the continuing growth and development of Natalie Wilson, playwright/voice teacher.  After allowing myself several months of slowing down and demanding less of myself creatively, I am recommitting to my writing and to using my time more productively.  Last week I began writing in my morning pages journal every day again (which is already making a huge difference in my outlook).  I started a new writing class last night, Short Forms with Sheri Wilner at ESPA Primary Stages.  I am, obviously, writing in my blog again (hello!), with a goal of 3 posts per week.  I am tracking my time this week to see how I'm spending it (ala 168 Hours, great book if you aren't familiar) and am determined to be able to fit in 20 hours of writing per week (including class time) as well as the 15 hours of bike riding per week I have been doing.  I know the time is there if I just choose to use it well.

But don't worry, BSG, I haven't given you up for good.  It's just going to take me a little longer to get through all of you.  Which means I'll actually get to enjoy you for that much longer.

It feels good to be back.