Friday, July 8, 2016

Artists in a Time of Violence

As I write this, tonight I'll be getting on a stage and doing my best to portray Pa Joad in a Houston production of The Grapes of Wrath. This final week of rehearsals has been rough, not only for the usual final week stress any theater person knows about, but for the news in my home country, these United States.

Police killing black men, snipers retaliating on police, presidential candidates who increasingly give me little reason to have confidence in them . . . those are the top stories this Friday morning. They are very distracting to me as I'm trying to focus on the work at hand, this art work that I've taken on.

This morning, I was chatting online with my colleague in art-making, Misha Penton. I expressed my feelings with my usual twist toward the ironic by saying:

Tell me, how am I supposed to go put on light summer entertainment about starvation, refugees from natural disaster, and death with all this happening in the world?

Because I have smart, sensitive, empathetic friends, she saw through the ironic phrasing and gave me this answer:

Because it matters that we keep putting art into the world. 


In fact, I might say, the most important thing for you to do is go do your starvation American West play. 

The world needs plays. 

And music.

And dance. 

And paintings. 

Art is the only thing that truly teaches compassion. 

Get out there, son, and do your art thing. 

Because we often communicate in hashtags, I responded with:   #RightThingToSay

She knows I believe that. Misha knows I've said similar things in the past. And she knew I needed to hear it again. And so, with her permission, I quote her now and put it into the broader world, particularly to artists, because maybe all the artists need to hear it too.

This is our time, artists. We need to look at the world and tell stories, create images, invent movement that puts compassion into our culture.

This is no easy call to action. The temptation is to present violent art in response to our current situation. I'm going to opine here that this is not what is needed. I've ever believed that if art can move us to good, it can also move us to evil. I would never tell you what you should and shouldn't make, but for every Guernica, which depicted war in such a way as to move people away from it, there are countless instances where art has glorified war and violence, inspired people to take up arms or made them fearful enough to do so. So, artists, in this time where we need to exercise our power, I urge you to carefully, carefully consider how you portray violence. Really, I'm begging you to approach this with all the compassion and peace-making you can muster. This is the power we need in the moment.

How do we do this? In all the many ways we make art, really. It's a problem to solve and as Houston-based choreographer and art educator Jane Weiner often says, art-making is problem solving. We can put all our creative energies behind the problems of the day and we can find solutions. Put another way, art-making is solution-making.

This is idealism, perhaps, but it's also imagination. Everything starts with imagination. If you can't imagine it, it can't happen. It took imagination to develop a stop sign, how it would work, how it would create some small order on our roads. It takes imagination to decide to . . . do anything. It takes imagination to take up a paint brush and it takes imagination to take up a gun. What world do you imagine? That imagination shapes the world, from stop signs to galleries to pulling a trigger.

What world do you imagine?

Act on that.

For now, I have to spend the afternoon preparing to create compassion and empathy for refugees from a natural disaster as they face police brutality, starvation, and death. It's what I have today.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Even So

presented as part of a Performance Art Night
314 Main St
Houston, TX

I'm going to state up front that this durational performance that I'm documenting here tonight was not as strong as I would have liked it to have been in execution. Conceptually, however, it's one I may want to revisit at some point.

First, two photos. 

Photo by David L Davis
The above is me during the performance. I'm the black shape in the foreground. I'm shrouded in yards of black cloth. Under the cloth, I have a small light and scissors and rolls of red crepe paper (like you would use to decorate the high school gym for prom). I'm cutting out hearts from the crepe paper and dropping them out of the folds of the fabric. Along the lower left of my silhouette, you can see some of the hearts accumulating there. The accumulation of the hearts was the main thing, really.

Above is a picture I took after I'd de-cloaked (as it were). you can see both red hearts and detritus from cutting them out. This photo was taken with a flash, to better show the color. It was a corner of a dark bar,

I went through several concepts before I settled upon this one. I knew I wanted some action that was a response to current events, which are weighing heavily on my mind. From refugees abroad to hate crimes at home, I feel very much in the darkness, unable to see what I can concretely do (besides some of the things we all can do, like give money to appropriate organizations and volunteer at same). Working within the darkness, however, I feel we must be committed to love, that we can't let the darkness paralyze us (my greatest temptation) or turn us equally violent or bitter. I called the piece Even So, the full phrase being something like, "Though we are surrounded by darkness everywhere and we are understandably afraid, Even So, I will try to put love out into the world."

When I do these sorts of performances, these quiet, slow pieces, I like being in a corner, out of the way, somewhere visible yet unobtrusive, for people to "find." In this case, I had a great spot. It was just inside the door at Notsuoh, so people would walk by as they entered and exited. People leaving should have been able to see how the hearts accumulated through the evening, even if they only saw me upon entrance and exit. The accumulation of the hearts should have been the thing.

However, it was dark. While the black cloth was appropriate for the concept, the red hearts didn't really stand out against it. Furthermore, except for times when I was making bigger movements (like rocking or adjusting my cramping legs under the fabric), I don't think everyone noticed there was anything there at all. This was brought home when people would try to store items behind me and bump into me not realizing I was a person. There was also a brief moment when another performer stored some white cloth by me, basically by just tossing it at my feet. That actually worked out in my favor as I could see out and the red hearts falling on the white fabric stood out nicely. Even so, it wasn't really part of the concept.

Cutting out hearts while shrouded was much more difficult than it should have been. I had a small light under the fabric with me so I could see---except that positioning it so I could both see what I was doing and not blind myself was a challenge. But one doesn't realize how much movement one makes when cutting out paper hearts until one's movements are restricted.

Despite being beside the door on a cool night, I still got quite warm under the fabric. I sweated and generally created a rather humid environment under the fabric. Humidity and crepe paper is a bad combination. Cutting damp crepe paper is hard.

I mostly learned that I cannot sit still for extended periods of time any longer. I started out on the floor and nearly started crying from the cramps. I tried to tough it out and then decided this was a bad time, place, and reason to die of a thrombosis, and I moved myself up to a bench, where my legs could unfold a little better. However, I ended up sitting on the cloth in such a way that I couldn't not sit up. By the time it was all over, I could barely stand up, much less stand up straight. I'm sure I looked drunk as I moved about, cleaning up after myself.

If I try to remount this performance, I will consider a few things.

While I like the idea of the hearts being created on the spot, in the darkness, I have to consider if the effect is harmed if I have the hearts cut out in advance and simply drop them out of the folds of the fabric. I like the notion of love taking time, that it's not a facile response to the darkness. On the other hand, I could have a larger accumulation hearts surrounding my figure shrouded in black.

I should only do this piece in a place that has some lighting choices.

I should probably have an assistant to help me with the drapery if I need to adjust under it.

And I need to start out in a position that my aging, cramping body can maintain for a couple of hours. Sitting on the floor is no longer it.

This is one of those things that I am glad I did, even if it didn't come off quite as I might have liked. I feel like artists need to make art in reaction to current events and this feels like one piece of mine that more directly did that. In fact, I told a friend that I felt very much influenced by Yoko Ono in this piece. Love doesn't only come out of the pretty places and is most needed when coming out of the darker places. I like to think she would agree and approve.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Learning Some Things

I'm writing this the evening of our last rehearsal for February to August, the ten-minute play I wrote and directed. Tomorrow evening (8:00pm, One Main Street, University of Houston-Downtown, O'Kane Theater), It will have its one run before an audience---in this iteration.
Isak Durmic and Kay McStay in February to August
 I've learned so much doing this small piece of theater. It's really the first script that I've written that I've actually gotten on the stage. (I suppose you might count the sort of sketch/vaudeville script I wrote around existing music for the Bastrop Opera House in 1986---The Grasshopper Hill State Fair and Tent Show---but just barely.) Shortly after I graduated college, I wrote a script that almost got produced and then it didn't---On Life, Living, and Being Alive (a 20-something's naive yet potentially charming comic exploration of the meaning of life, and I'm pretty sure it's okay it was never produced)----and in the early 1990s, there was a one-act play---Our Father (a drama that took place in a funeral home parlor, full of shouting and secrets between siblings), another happily unproduced script). Very low dramatic output for a writer with a BFA in theater. (Now that I mention the BFA, i did stage a scene from On LIfe for my senior recital.)

So tomorrow night is full of anticipation and dread and desire to do it all over again. I've learned some things about why it's difficult to direct your own script. I've learned some things about stage writing that I knew (or should have) but didn't quite exercise in this script. I've learned that rewriting is a great companion on the way and that there are probably really good reasons there are multiple versions of Angels in America produced, at least from Tony Kushner's point of view.

All of which was more than I intended to ramble on about tonight. Tonight, all I really wanted to write about was that the process of rehearsals and working with actors on my own script has been an education---one I may write about more after the show, but definitely one that I will work to put to use as I move to put my long one act, The City, A Desert. If for no other reason, I'm glad I produced February to August before I set seriously to work to get this longer work on its legs.

Thanks to Kay McStay (Patty) and Isak Durmic (Andrew) for giving me this education, and particularly to Dr Thomas Lyttle, who let me crash his directing class's final projects (my play will be presented with student directed one-acts) with my own project.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Playwright Directs and Gets Questions

So I'm directing a ten-minute play that I've written (the wisdom of directing one's own play is a topic for another time) and the fact that these two characters and their situation comes wholly from my brain, might reasonably lead the actors to think I know all about these people.

One of the actors sent me very good questions about (among other things):

socio-economic status
level of education
marriage or in a long-term relationship
other close family members

Some things I know and feel comfortable answering. I think there may be ways to play it otherwise, but I pretty much imagined the characters to be middle class. The character above lives alone in her own home and her nephew is in college. Lower class and certainly upper class people might have these circumstances, but the middle class angle is the one I will play.

But it's a ten-minute play. There's only so much in-text information that a playwright can put on the page. I think this is where the collaboration between actors and director becomes fun and the playwright has to get out of the way. Within this ten minute play, the actors can decide any number of things about these characters. As I told my actor asking these questions, I had been willing to cast this play across racial lines and I would have expected the cast to talk about what dynamics that would have created in their relationship. That I ended up with two white actors still leaves us with a lot to talk about, a lot of subtext to create.

I will direct with an eye toward creating as interesting a picture on the stage as i can, and I will guide my actors into as as truthful performances as possible.

But the truth of these characters? There's so much room for the actors to build that for themselves, for this particular production of the play, and I wouldn't want to take that away from them.

I wrote a few pages of words that are open to quite a bit of interpretation. I can't wait to see what they discover under the words.

I'm excited by what we might end up creating together.

February to August will be performed November 19, 2005, at the O'Kane Theater, University of Houston-Downtown as part of an evening of Student Directed One-Acts, 8:00pm. Free and open to the public.  

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Theatrical Turn

I haven't posted on this blog in some time, mostly because I haven't been making performances lately. I've been writing the last few months, and that's been good, but I'm about to start up with some performance again.

And the next couple of things will be more straight-forward theatrical. As in in a theater (or theater like space) with a sitting audience, as opposed to the performance art I was making for a while (and no doubt will make again).

First up is a ten-minute play that has had a ten-year gestation period. I wrote the first draft of it while still in grad school (so more like a 12 year gestation period!) and the germ of the idea came as I watched a classmate, Kelly, do a brief performance in a class. There was some five-minute play competition coming up and I wrote up a five-page script on this germ. It wasn't accepted in the competition, but I've revisited the script a few times over the years. I've altered the script to be illustrated for a comic, but never submitted that anywhere. I've adapted it into a screenplay, and shown it to a couple of filmmaker friends, but nothing came of that, either.

Then an idea came to me about the one character, the woman, the aunt, something to give the play a slightly more surrealist feel, if not to the play itself, then to the character. I did some rewrites to it over the summer and I feel it's much improved.

My day job is at the University of Houston-Downtown, and every fall, the theater program offers a directing class. This class culminates in four nights of "Student Directed One-Acts." Last year, I crashed that party with a short play, "Box Step," written by another grad school classmate, Laura Weiss Lyngaas. (The teacher and director of the theater program likes to have broad campus involvement in the theater, so it wasn't exactly crashing, but I certainly wasn't a student and it wasn't a full-length one-act play.) Having a newly edited ten-minute play of my own writing, I asked if I might crash the party again. I'm grateful to be allowed to do so.

So, this short play February to August, will finally be brought to life on November 19th at the O'Kane Theater at UHD. I'll be posting more about it, as I want to use this blog as a bit of a production diary.

For tonight, I want to record that we had our first rehearsal this evening and while it was little more than reading through the script twice and talking about what's going on it, the interaction of the two actors, and the response to what little direction I gave has left me feeling very good about this. Excited even.

This just might work out pretty well.

* * * * *

Also in the theatrical offing is a long(ish) one-act play I have written, based upon the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This is another project with a long gestation period, a good five years since I wrote the first scene. This went through a bigger change in concept than August to February did. Originally, my take on the Abbas and Ammas was much more performance arty, almost vaudevillian in nature. That wasn't working at all and I had to let what I wrote lie for a while until a form became evident. It finally did and I've had a draft of it for a couple of months now. I just completed formatting the script and I hope to get together some folks to do a reading of it in the next couple of months. 

But I'll write more about that in the coming weeks and months, too. 

I don't feel like I've abandoned performance art, but my performing roots are in the theater and I'm pleased that the muse has led me to this place of play writing.

And I've said from the start, the performance in Breath & Bone/Orts Performance was broadly defined. At the moment, the definition is more recognizable as traditional theater. I'm sure my performance art experience will be apparent in some of this as I move forward. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Looking Back and Forward

It's been a while since I've posted to this blog, and there are reasons for that, none of them really all that great. It is true that I've been working more on writing in recent months. Also, most everything I've attempted with performance has fallen apart.

I will be making more performance this coming spring, via Fieldwork starting March 9. I'm facilitating again this spring. Follow the link to get more information and to register!

Seedling Heart
 As I am preparing for Fieldwork, however, I've been looking back over what performance I've made over the last two years, since creating Breath & Bone. I've been very pleased, over all, with what has been created.

I've also been disappointed by the things that didn't come to fruition, for one reason or another. Most recently, I'm disappointed by the non-realization of the advent art event I tried to get together. I have some hope of getting that together, maybe for next year. I was also hopeful of participating in a recent event by Continuum, the local performance art collective. Again, fell through.

And planning two things in a row that I couldn't make happen has been discouraging. Meanwhile, some writing is happening and I finally made a conscious effort to concentrate on that and not attempt performance for a few months.

Until Spring
 Still, it's not as if I suddenly lost the will to make performance. Performance has just taken a brief backseat.

Here's the thing about performance: It's expensive, and requires the ability to schlepp around props and other performance accessories. I live without a car, and the last two years have resulted in medical bills that has postponed some hopes.

Not complaining, just telling. All of this is still all a gift I'm amazed to have received.
 So, what next? Well, that's a little hard to say, except that I want to explore some options. I still have this dream of an arts organization that produces work and also engages the work theologically. Not even the work itself, but the process of making art. The phrase I keep coming back to is art making as a site for theological reflection.

I feel I've established something of a track record as a performance maker (not everything is documented in these photos, by the way) but most are still pieces that have remained seen by few or not quite the audience that I've been hoping to cater to. This brings us back to the need for an actual organization, a board or even some very committed friends to help with things like publicity. I've been trying too long to do this alone. I don't know who these helpers might be, but I need to start asking folks. And if you're reading this and this somehow touches a nerve with you and you want to volunteer, well, there's a comment section below or you can email me at neilellisorts at yahoo dot com. 
Wringing Out Light

Looking back over, not only the last two years as Breath & Bone, but also over the decade that I've been in Houston, I've made a lot of things happen. I've published some very good books as neoNuma Arts. They're still available on Amazon here, here, here, and here. 

I've a decent resume as a part-time arts and religion writer. 

I've published some creative writing the last couple of years, too, most notably my novella, Cary and John.

Tell Me Where It Hurts
 All of this, I might add, around always working a full time job of some sort.

And it's all been satisfying, it's all been a marvel to be a part of each project. In so many ways, this is crazy territory for a farm boy from Paige, Texas.

But there's room for more.

I'm past ready for more.

I wish I could say what that meant in concrete terms, but again, as above, contact me if you have ideas . . .

Watch How You Watch (or What Do You See When You See Yourself Seeing?
Immediately, it means making a piece for Fieldwork---as a starting point, I'm going to revisit this essay and expand. 

I have written a draft of a long one-act play based upon the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I mean to have a reading of that for select friends and colleagues by summer. Won't be produced anytime soon, but a reading is the next step in its development.

Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis
And after that . . . so many ideas, most of then never to be realized. But there will be an after that. Maybe that's what is most important.

Well, the most important thing is a setting up a means for making it actually happen. No more false starts . . .

Stay tuned and keep in touch.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Planning for December Part I

Artist opportunities, for artists of all kinds . . .

Two Houston churches, Grace Lutheran and St Stephen's Episcopal, are teaming up to sponsor an advent season (the church season before Christmas) art event. Of some kind. We're keeping it somewhat undefined for the moment. We only know we want to engage the themes of advent: hope, anticipation, anxiety, expectation. We want artists of faith and of no faith to explore these themes, hopefully without recycling old images but by bringing new vision.

What's happening now: A workshop/playdate/brainstorming session.

Saturday, July 26
10:00am - 1:00pm
Grace Lutheran Church
2515 Waugh Dr, Houston, Texas 77006
This will be a combination of structured exercises and intentional play. We're planning on doing one of these each month, just to explore what's possible 
Musicians, performers, installation artists, visual artists . . . no medium turned away! 
No commitment is assumed by participating in this workshop. In fact, I'd be happy to have people who just want a creative play day to show up. I won't be asking for commitments until October or early November. 

And if you can't make this one, you're not ruled out---as I say, we plan to have one of these monthly until we make the thing. 

Three is a Facebook event page for this, so if you're on Facebook, feel free to go HERE and ask questions or join up there. If you're not on Facebook, feel free to email me at neilellisorts <at> yahoo dot com. 

Please share this with other artists who might be interested.