Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Not Exactly Out of Nothing But . . .

The age-old question for artists of all kinds has been, "where do your ideas come from?"

And then there's the follow-up: "how did you make that?"

Frankly, I'm more interested in the follow-up. I'm a process person and I love seeing/hearing how artists go about fulfilling their vision(s).

So you'd think I'd have some sort of understanding of my own process, would have paid more attention to how I go about things. But when I'm in the actual act of making something, I'm sort of in the act of making something and not paying attention to process.

As I made the recent performance out of eight poems by Jill Alexander Essbaum, this is highlighted for me by two events.

One was early in the rehearsal process. I worked a lone for a few weeks, moving about an empty space (either at Hope Stone Studios, where I had my HopeWerks Residency, or at at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, where I was graced with additional rehearsal space) and deciding how I wanted a particular poem to move, what shape or floor plan I wanted it to take. This was primarily an intuitive process, I think. Even 25 years ago, when I was directing my first plays, I made decisions about blocking fairly quickly and while I might veer off from the initial plan when I see something isn't working in rehearsal (or an actor is bringing something to the performance that requires a different pattern or I see a better picture to make with the actual bodies in space), once I set blocking, it's fairly well set. For better or worse.

When I set the last piece on my performers (of which I was one, which skews the process some, since I can't actually see the pictures I'm making), I found myself pondering my own process. On my bus ride home, I remember thinking, "How did I do that? There once was nothing, now there's this floor pattern and other movement that these performers didn't do. Did I make that? How? When?" I had a moment of wonder about that. I think I could reconstruct the steps and choices, but only with difficulty. My own process was obscure to me.

The second event was really a couple of events but the same one repeated. One was when Donna Meadows and I appeared on the local radio program, The Front Row. The interviewer, Catherine Lu, asked me how does one go about adapting poetry to the stage. It was a question that caught me off guard. I sort of stammered, "I don't know." That question was asked again at the after-show talk-backs. I was no more prepared to answer it. I think behind that question is some kind of surprise that one would attempt this, but I'm pretty sure I'm not the first to do it.

Again, I think I can reconstruct some of the steps in choices, some of which go back to when I first read these poems and saw images on a stage. Those images have been there a while and mostly, I just had to adjust them for the type of performance space we had. And I blocked out a floor pattern/path, and I figured out what pictures I wanted to make, and suddenly we had this thing that we just ran and refined until opening night.

I thought more about process this past weekend, at the Blue Rock Review release party. I'd had a short piece (people assure me it's a poem, so okay, a poem) accepted for publication in the journal and as I looked at it, expertly laid out, I remembered how hard I worked on it, how all the early drafts were a prose essay. I could never get happy with it and the Monday before the deadline, I set the essay aside and made a list (and, allegedly, a poem). I looked at it, decided that maybe this was the piece, emailed it off and they accepted it.

But I never set out to write a list/poem. Suddenly one exists, not only in my notebook, but in a journal that's being distributed hither and yon.

Do other artists find this somewhat mysterious. And exciting? But mostly mysterious?

I don't mean to be disingenuous with this pondering. I know there were hours put into both projects. I also don't want to imply that this mysterious process made something wonderful, because I always feel like things fall short of the idea in my head and need more hours, maybe even need more setting aside and starting over.

I'm coming to no conclusion tonight. Maybe I never will. I'm sure this won't be the last time I type aimlessly about process and the mystery therein.

There's something to unravel here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Necropolis Company Member: Cassandra Shaffer-Permenter

Neil Ellis Orts, Cassandra Shaffer-Permenter, and Donna Meadows
 A few days ago, I posted some words from Donna Meadows about her experience working on Necropolis for our HopeWerks Resicency performance, Questions and Declarations.

Today, let me introduce you to the other cast member of Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis, Cassandra Shaffer-Permenter. Here's what she's had to say about working on this project:

* * * * *

Neil first described 'Necropolis' to me as a "funny, sad, creepy, Jesusy sort of performance work." Since, funny, sad, Jesusy things are right up my alley, I was of course intrigued. 

I've really enjoyed exploring Jill Alexander Essbaum's work, which is new to me (I hadn't heard of her prior to this experience). Her poems are dark but deeply honest, and almost conversational in some places. I like her use of wordplay and sly double entrendres, as well.

As the title implies, death is a major theme throughout these poems. One of the "play dates" we had early in the process was in the aftermath of Jeremy Choate's tragic passing. I remember that particular read-though was particularly cathartic (for me, at least).

I've really loved being a part of this process and seeing these great poems come to life. As a performer, it's been a fun challenge for me-- most of my background is in dance, and it's been years since I've done any spoken word/acting. Neil and Donna are both great people to work with, and I'm really glad to have been a part of this process with them. I hope you'll come out this weekend and see out efforts!

* * * * *

As Cassandra says, come see the result of our efforts. Dates and times again:

Friday, November 16, 2012 7:30pm
Saturday, November 17, 2012, 7:30pm
Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 6:00pm.

Hope Stone Studio
1210 W. Clay St. 26 (Entrance on Van Buren, at the end of the building!)
Houston, TX

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Doorways to Compassion

Neil Ellis Orts, Cassandra Shaffer-Permenter, and Donna Meadows in rehearsal for Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis, part of the HopeWerks Residency showing, Questions and Declarations.

We're less than a week away from showing the work I've been making with my half of a HopeWerks Residency (which I'm sharing with Donna Meadows). In an earlier post, I spoke about what was behind my choosing to adapt some poetry from Jill Alexander Essbaum, that I wanted to show something about death and grief, to ask an audience to look at something we, as a culture, tend to look away from---and do so with an eye towards entertaining moments that take the edge off, but nonetheless  keeps our gaze on the this thing we don't like to look at.

This week, I was thinking about what participation in the arts is about (spinning out of a Facebook post, which isn't pertinent here). I boiled it down to a single phrase that I posted to the Breath & Bone Facebook wall: "participation in the arts is a doorway to compassion."

Being who I am, I immediately started arguing with my own proposition. Even as I was typing it, I edited it. I don't recall what I typed first, but I edited it to "is a doorway," recognizing that participation in the arts is far from the only means to compassion. 

And also recognizing that participation in the arts might have doorways that do not lead to compassion. 

I think these doorways, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder---whether the beholder realizes it or not. 

Because we cannot ignore the horrors of Nazism, which had a clear idea of what the arts were and how participation in them could reinforce a national identity, which is to say, nationalism. Collection paintings, seeing operas and ballets, listening to the great symphonies didn't lead to compassion but instead led to a deadly, delusional pride. 

There is danger in art-making, I think. Interpretation is something very much out of the hands of the artist. The intention of the artist only gets you so far. Some people do not look at art with the hope of learning about other people, their lives, their loves, struggles, and triumphs. Some people look at art for reinforcement of their own prejudices. 

What a work of art does depends so very much upon what the viewer is looking for. 

But here I'll say some more about what I hope to show with this work I've been making and will present next weekend. 

I want to show you something about death and grief, yes, but also something about it's healing. The photo above comes from a section of the performance that actually has no words from Jill, but is silently performed as a transition into hope. 

I want to show that the anger and despair of grief is natural and I hope the audience---of whatever religious persuasion or of no persuasion---that questioning God, however defined, is not as dangerous as we're sometimes led to believe, that's it's okay to ask, "Exactly how has your will been done?" and not be satisfied with the silence that meets us. 

I want to show that compassion is a part of the healing, and that we---all of us, for an artist who doesn't speak to him/herself is leaving out a very important piece of the audience---can decide to practice compassion that will lead us to some kind of peace, however tentative. 

That's what's on my mind---how I hope to be a servant to the showing---this week. 

I really hope you'll join us. Next weekend at Hope Stone Studio, November 16-18, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 6:00pm. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

HopeWerks Collaborator, Donna Meadows

Neil Ellis Orts and Donna Meadows
photo by Simon Gentry
 It's all Donna's fault. Months ago, she came to me and asked if I was interested in sharing a HopeWerks Residency with her. I may have thought about it 3-5 seconds.

When we started talking about what we were wanting to do with our portion of the residency, she said she wanted to participate in my work as well as making her own work. Okay, sure!

Sometime, maybe I'll talk about the "audition" (I put it in quotes, because they weren't really auditions in the usual sense) process, but I ended up with Donna and Cassandra Shaffer-Permenter as my cast. We had a couple of play dates in September and have been working on Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis (my half of Questions and Declarations, the HopeWerks showing next week) since early October.

I asked these two ladies if they had anything to say about the experience. Donna sent me the following:

* * * * * * * * * *

I am so enjoying working on this project with Neil and Cassandra.  Any time spent in rehearsal is absolutely serious fun.  The most intriguing thing for me is having the poems reveal themselves aurally rather than just reading printed words on paper alone. And as I delve further into the poems through speaking or hearing them I am drawn to return to their natural home on the page.  While I am most familiar with the ones we are performing I’m finding that experience eases my way as I read other poems in the collection.  Neil’s staging has enabled me to explore them with multiple viewpoints.

As we continue to work through the staging and lines of this poetry I find myself becoming more focused yet more at ease.  For me, I feel we’re at a point where we’re starting to flow.  I’ve always enjoyed the exchange and co-mingling of energy with fellow performers, separate entities creating and sharing a singular experience.  This project has been no different.  Cassandra and Neil have been great and Jill Alexander Essbaum’s poetry has been wonderful to explore with them.  I’ll miss our time together in the Hope Stone studio (my dance home) when our HopeWerks is finished.

* * * * * * * * * *

Won't you come see what we've been up to? I feel really good about it. If you're on Facebook, let us know we're coming by visiting the event page and while you're there, I invite you to "Like" the Breath & Bone/Orts Performance page.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Presence, Stage and Otherwise

I think we've all experienced a performer who walks onto the stage (or whatever performance space) and fills the room with her/his presence, yes? We tend to call it "stage presence."

What is that?

Their finite, physical person does not expand, and yet their presence is "felt" some distance away. Some people come to it naturally---it's been a constant in my life that people tell me I have it---but I wonder what it is. If I have it, are there things that I have done to cultivate it?

Up until now, I can't say it's been any kind of conscious cultivation, but in retrospect, I think there have been practices that may have contributed to my stage presence.

So part of our practice of making Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis into a stage presentation has been something I call "practicing resurrection." It's a movement meditation, bits of which I've stolen from here and there and woven into my own experience and theology/understanding of resurrection.

Because surely stage presence has to do with the spiritual nature of our being---that we're not only matter/stuff, but also spiritual. And if stage presence is a spiritual expression of our beings, would a spiritual practice of some sort help build stage presence in someone who does not have it?

I'm working with experienced performers who already have certain amount of stage presence. Still, I ask them to "practice resurrection" before each rehearsal. I want them to be fully alive, fully present to the task at hand. I want them to fill the room with their presence.

And this is the sort of thing I'm hoping to explore intentionally as I develop the company. I want to develop a practice for performers. I want to explore theological concepts in the context of art making. I'm a process person and a theologically trained process person. To some extent, I can't help it. I've done it for some time.

This is the first time I've asked people to come along . . .

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Countdown to Questions and Declarations

I had small hopes of chronicling the rehearsal process (because I am, at heart, a process person) of working on Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis for my HopeWerks Residency showing, Questions and Declarations.  Those small hopes included typing something every couple of weeks.

So of course, it's been a couple of months since last I typed into this particular blog spot.

What can I say? It's been a busy month, not only with work on Necropolis but also with other performance events, clearing off my freelance writing slate, writing a grant and sometimes I eat, sleep, and go to my day job.

So, how's it going, you ask?

Well. It's going well. I'm really excited to show what Cassandra Shaffer-Permenter, Donna Meadows, and I have been working on. Cassandra and Donna have been great to work with, willing to try most anything I asked (within reason---and it's true, not everything I've asked is reasonable) and for some performance about death and grieving, I think we've created something with no little beauty.

I've been asked what we're doing is dance or theater or what. I think it's mostly or what. Cassandra and Donna are both dancers and I've taken dance, so there's definitely a movement style---what I tend to refer to as expressive bodies. There are elements of theater---we're speaking text for an audience and if it's a dance studio rather than a stage, it is definitely akin to being in a black box theater. And perhaps that's the closest "thing" we can claim. Theater. But I tend to just call it "performance." That covers it, despite confounding some people. Add to the fact that it's not exactly in the bounds of what is known as "performance art," the confounding in compounded.

(That just happened, unplanned. I'm going to have to use that somewhere else . . . )

This is what happens when a farm boy from Paige goes off to Chicago to get an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts. Definitions get muddy.

But, I begin to ramble, so I'll just leave with this:

Questions and Declarations
new performance work by Donna Meadows and Neil Ellis Orts
Friday, November 16, 2012 7:30pm
Saturday, November 17, 2012, 7:30pm
Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 6:00pm. 

Hope Stone Studio
1210 West Clay, Suite 26
(entrance faces Van Buren) 
 $5 admission at the door. 

We don't have reservations, but space is limited and if you're on Facebook, you can let us know you're coming via the event page

While I'm at it, I should also add this little bit of information about HopeWerks:
HopeWerks is a space grant offered to emerging choreographers and performance artists to assist them in the early stages of their artistic journey. Artists are given three months of unlimited rehearsal time at Hope Stone Studio to create their work. At the end of the three months, the artists present a "work-in-progress" showing to the public at the Studio.

And  I might also add thanks to St. Stephen's Episcopal Church for the use of additional rehearsal space.

Yeah, this didn't all just happen by itself. There's been a lot of help. I must remember to be grateful for all this help . . .