Category Archives: arts

Put Down the Weston, and No One Gets Hurt

SometimEmpty Buildinges, before a photo shoot, I’ll grab something like B&W Magazine and just look at the photographs: randomly turn the pages and let my gaze float. Away from the house, I might arrive a little early and look through photo.net on the phone. It’s kind of like a runner doing stretches or a musician playing scales. I sometimes think of it as “tuning up the eye.” I start seeing regular life as images. Maybe it lights up the brain’s photo neuron pathways.

For one thing, you start seeing the world in shapes—a triangle here, a rectangle there—and the relationships between them. The empty space becomes a shape of its own. Like Miles Davis, you start playing the space between the notes. And you start to see tones. You look at scenes to spot that 18% gray for the camera’s meter to latch onto—especially important if you’re using a spotmeter. (I find that my Canons read more like 12% gray.) A frame begins drawing itself around the everyday. Once you begin seeing that way, it’s sometimes hard to shake.

In almost any art, it’s vital to experience the work of others. If you write plays, read plays (or reread favorites). Play guitar? Listen, even if the guitarist works in a form that leaves you a bit cold. The country Telecaster picker can teach the Ibanez-wielding shredder a few things and vice versa. Take photographs? Look at pictures. Lots of pictures. All the time.

A point comes, however, to put down the book or magazine or close the website. Obviously, if everything you shoot comes out looking a bit too much like your favorites, it’s at least best to look at someone else’s work. Sometimes, though, it’s best not to look at anyone at all. The tank fills. In fact, particularly if you’re feeling stuck, it’s best not only to put away the big Weston collection but to stop looking at photographs altogether. Just for a stretch. Do something else. Anything else. Maybe not go to the movies (as they’re moving photographs), but go for a drive. Listen to music. Dig in the garden. Go for a walk and leave the camera home. Let the photo brain take a rest. The same goes for whatever art you’re engaged in.

A few art forms lead themselves to this. One of the things I like about writing for theatre is that it takes two forms. The first comes when you’re composing, whether that means conducting research or actually putting down words. The second comes when you have a production or reading, and you collaborate with a director and actors. You get the introvert and extrovert time. Even so, really making a concerted effort to stop thinking about your form, much less practicing it, not only can make you happy—it can keep you sane.

That is, we kind of get locked into our art. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially when you’re facing a deadline. Other times, it’s a symptom of the artist’s obsessive side. People often ask me how I can write every morning before work. They praise my discipline, but, really, it’s a mixture of habit and bloody-mindedness: I can’t think of anything else. And my brain’s become so conditioned that it starts coughing up ideas around 6:00 and won’t let go until I shake some words loose. (It’s worth noting that some of those dedicated writing hours are spent staring into space and sipping coffee to kick the brain into working order; other mornings, I just give up and read something: the brain’s hung up its gone fishing sign.)

This won’t necessarily be easy, especially if you’re locked in deep. If you practice multiple arts, whether professionally or as a hobby, working in another form can distract the mind—shiny, shiny!—and give your overworked gray areas a breather without going into total withdrawals.

Strangely enough, the tension you may feel not working on your chosen art may be a good thing. It’s a sign that your unconscious mind is throwing its weight around, churning under the surface. Because, realistically, you’ll never stop working. It’s just not going to happen. You’ll start dreaming about it. You’ll experience intrusive thoughts that will make you want to run to the pen or the camera. But if you can get to the point, where you’re not in acute discomfort and you’re enjoying something else…like life…finally returning to your form can bring more than relief. You might find that you’ve improved. That you’ve been able to do something that, previously, you could not, whether it’s automatically spotting that 18% gray or playing a guitar riff that’s been eluding you.

Though a seeming paradox, sometimes you have stop to progress. You have to give your unconscious time to run. Often, it’ll surprise you. If nothing else, you’ve had a break, a little vacation from the Effort That Never Ends. And that’s never a bad thing.


Photographica: Late Afternoon and into the Past

Late Afternoon, Modish Building, Portland, Oregon

Late Afternoon, Modish Building, Portland, Oregon

A late winter afternoon–after a stretch of rain, the air still thick. Winter in the Pacific Northwest often limits you to shooting detail, given the long overcast stretches. But, when it clears, it gives you this full, rich light and color more akin to the semi-tropics, plus long shadows. Maybe the moisture content in the air; it somehow bends the light.

Here we have the golden hour plus: the warm light tinged with winter blues. The photo’s seem some post-production work, mostly to render it the way I saw it. Or at least how I remembered it. There’s no telling how far that can stray. Memory’s it’s own kind of filter.

The site–the Modish Building in downtown Portland–holds a special meaning for me. My first play–Controlled Burn–was produced on the fourth floor, in a sort of underground art gallery, with the artists squatting on site…not us, we came in as guests. Very punk, man! Kind of. They did throw some great parties. They also had limited gear available. The sound system was fantastic, and there must have been 50 cues, but our lights consisted of slide projectors and flashlights with colored gels over the lenses (and a silver plastic balloon that served to create a very cool watery effect). We took our set up in a rickety industrial elevator than ran so slow that you could reach out and touch the wall as it passed. We called if the David Lynch Memorial Elevator. We had to bring audiences up to the fourth floor in batches of ten. Luckily, the fire inspector never visited us.

With time, you learn. Back then, I had no idea. I remember Kyle Evans (who helped found Pavement Productions) and I attended PATA auditions when looking for actors. We knew nobody in the theatre community, nobody knew us, but they treated us as equals, and we ended up working with some very cool people like Sherilyn Lawson, Marty Ryan, and Catherine Egan (as a shamanistic dancer).

That’ll be 25 years ago this coming September. First play. Birth of Pavement Productions (I certainly had no idea that would last for 18 years). And my first review–the Oregonian compared me to a young Sam Shepard. They also said the play was kind of a mess–really, it was more performance art–and dubbed it “Uncontrolled Burn.” And thus the pattern: the critic give, and critic taketh away. Still, they couldn’t have made me happier unless they’d compared me to Beckett or Ionesco.

Funny that the piece really was a series of interconnected monologues, and I’m currently playing with a series of interconnected narrative poems–which could be performed as a series of monologues. I don’t know whether that means the circle comes round or I just have a limited number of ideas.

(Shot with a Canon 70D, 18-55mm zoom lens, processed in Adobe Lightroom.)

P.S.: This marks my blog’s 500th post.


Revisiting “The Twilight Zone”

Zen PathReading, of late, about one Rod Serling. Writer. Producer. Creator. A man who seemed to have everything going for him. And then….

Yeah, well…and then shit happens. Apparently, he pretty much worked and smoked himself to death, and he died early. Just like his father. A fate that always haunted him. There’s an object lesson for you: sometimes you can’t see the obvious because you don’t want to see the obvious. Or because it scares you too much. And, because you can’t see it, you doom yourself to it. The kind of thing that happens in…the Twilight Zone.

Man. That’s one hell of a voice the guy had. Every writer follows a different process, but, once I hear a character’s voice, a door opens into the story. I can’t explain it—that’s just how it happens for me. And if you hear Serling or watch his work, that voice sticks to you. Pretty soon it won’t let you go. And then people wonder why you’re talking so weird. So ironically. Snapping off every word. Holding for dramatic effect. Like…this.

Which is a kind of genius. It’s a brand. If you like Rod Serling and the strange world he became associated with through his remarkable television show The Twilight Zone, then you know what you get when you hear that voice. The poignant side? With time, that’s all anyone wants to hear. You’re stuck with it. They won’t let you change it and grow. It can also become cruel when your audience tires of that voice. If it becomes too familiar. Some in the audience just wait for Dylan’s old songs. Some won’t listen to the Stones because they don’t sound as good as they used to. Why? They repeat themselves. And because the listeners themselves aren’t as young as their memories.

It’s a tough choice: give people what they want or risk repeating yourself and burning them out. It seems the artists who transcend that operate with very good compasses: they know who they are, and part of their brand is trying new stuff. You like them because you don’t know what you’ll get, but it’s likely to be good. It’s said Picasso could own anything he wanted if he could paint it, but he continually tried new forms, excelling at them and putting his “Picasso” stamp on them. Part of Tom Waits’ genius seems lie in the continual search for new sounds. It doesn’t always work, but, a lot of times, it’s very, very good. And there’s always that little bit of that Tom Waits DNA that keeps you coming back. There’s magic, and there’s tragic magic, and you have to risk one to achieve the other.

The Twilight Zone was wondrous. I don’t even think we knew how good it was at the time. I was too young to remember its debut seasons, but I grew up with it in syndication. I was not, however, too young for Night Gallery, Serling’s kind of reboot of The Twilight Zone. By the time that came out in the Seventies, Serling’s outlook had darkened, and the show reflected that darkness. He wasn’t entirely in charge of the program, as he was with The Twilight Zone, and sometimes it slipped into camp. But I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to Night Gallery evenings. (They always seemed to be rainy.) You didn’t know where you would go, and sometimes you went to very dark places indeed. Very dark. Which, to me were the coolest, most mysterious places to be, and very different than…than being a geeky kid in a small town. In the Pacific Northwest. Where it seemed some winters that the sun never made it all the way across the sky. Where the rain and the fog blurred the edge of everything. Blunted the colors. You didn’t realize how fabulously beautiful everything around you was until the sun came out, but sun didn’t last long. I came to like images with a little blur to them. Where you couldn’t quite be sure of what you were seeing. You had to guess, relying on your imagination to complete the picture.

What did the Night Gallery look like? Like an actual gallery, it varied. They hung a lot of paintings in three years. Sometimes, they didn’t turn out that well, and, looking at them now, you kind of shrug, shake your head. Yeah…well, they tried. And they were on deadline. Sometimes they retain their power and mystery. If that sort of darkness interests you (and it’s okay if it does), take a look.

Somewhere in there, Night Gallery stamped me with its mark, and I came to enjoy diving into that deep place where it really gets strange and frightening. I don’t give a damn about slasher pics or much of the stuff that passes for horror. But the fantastic, the uncomfortable, the…haunted, where the hero doesn’t always walk out in the sunshine at the end: it took ahold of me. In some ways, I’ve been writing about ever since. A writer friend says my work is haunted. (Maybe it’s me that’s haunted.) But that darkness, that blur, seems to distinguish my writing and photographs. Maybe that’s my brand.

To me, it just feels like beneath the surface of ordinary life, things remain hidden. Jung called it the unconscious—he was a scientist; so that’s kind of antiseptic. But there’s nothing clean or classifiable about the genuine intersection of the hidden and the ordinary, between dreams and reality. Some pretty good stories happen there. And maybe they show us that the world is not only more complex than we know, but more complex than we can know.

That’s paraphrasing Einstein, whose brand became synonymous with genius. He died four years before The Twilight Zone went on the air. Would he have watched it? I like to think he would have. Marking Twilight Zone nights on his calendar. We’ve come to find that when you take apart the smallest operating particles of reality, they don’t always act as suspected. Sometimes they’re here, but only for the briefest moments, and, in those nanoseconds, they don’t play by the rules. It appears that a twilight zone occurs within every thing. Within all of us. All the time.

There’s something to walk away with…Serling. You did good.

 

 


Why Write for the Stage?

photoFor a change, money is not the answer.

Oh, one can make a buck or two writing plays, and there’s a refreshing point in one’s career where the contracts rise to the four- or five-digit level. And, if you write a hot play that does well at the Humana Festival and becomes a favorite among the regional theatres and you get a write-up in American Theatre magazine and make a dozen other perfect bank shots…you could see a pretty good year or two. Until the next flavor comes along. Winning a Pulitzer helps. Maybe.

But even the folks ostensibly making it usually have to supplant their incomes, often through teaching or, lately, writing for television…which is one reason why the writing quality for non-broadcast programs has increased so…well, dramatically.

What do you have left if you take money out of the picture? Control. And love.

Continue reading


Uncovering New Territory in the Splatterverse

As noted on the Splatterverse home page, this site, like the universe after which it has been named, continues to expand. To wit, new territories have been discovered in The Writer’s Life section:

Here’s hoping you find something worthwhile out of the new material. Shoot me a note if you have suggestions for other, applicable listings.

No sites were harmed in the gathering of these resources.

Steve


Coming Soon

Stay tuned. Soon I’ll be introducing my blog on: theatre, arts, culture, the writing life, and, occasionally, politics (once a journalist, always a journalist). You can also visit my other blog: splattworks


It may be ceremonial…

…but it’s weirdly moving. It will also make some of us feel awfully old.


Sad News for the Portland Arts Community

Dancer/choreographer Keith Goodman dies after performance Saturday


Sign This Guy Up

Mir Hossein Mousavi, one of the Iranian opposition candidates for president (and some say the winner) is not only one brave politician; he’s also an artist. Here’s a statement about Mousavi’s artistic interests:

“A believer that art plays a secondary role to political engagement, Mousavi once wrote that ‘the paint brush will never take the place of the communal struggle for freedom. It must be said that the expressive work of any painter or artist will not minimize the need to perform his social responsibilities. Yet it is within the scope of these responsibilities that his art can provide a vision for a way of living in an alternative future.'”

If he doesn’t end up the president of Iran (and manages to stay alive), we could use him in the U.S. Senate. Below are a couple of his paintings.


A bad time for arts…

…a good time for entertainment.

This morning’s New York Times carried a story about a resurgence in moviegoing. With the economy so lackluster, people apparently are looking for the cheapest route to forget their problems for awhile, and a couple hours in a moviehouse eases the mind without inflicting extensive financial pain. (It didn’t break it down to this level, but my guess is there’s also an increase in matinee/discount hour attendance.)

So that’s good for folks who work in the movies (if their production companies can actually get financing with credit in the dumper), nor is it surprising: people have long turned to the movies when the world goes to hell. The Great Depression may not have been the best time for the arts, but it did give us screwball comedies, some of which are now classics. Nor is it surprising that attendance is up for lighter fare and down for serious films (or at least films tackling serious subjects). When everything seems to megasuck, it’s hard to crank yourself up for a couple hours of war, famine, plague, and over varieties of suffering. People don’t want to be reminded that they are mortal in a world rife with injustice; they want to fall in love, laugh, and, if they’re Americans, see things blow up.

But it’s further grim news for those of us who can’t forget war, famine, etc., and hence reflect it in our art. As the author of two very tough-minded plays about war (and another two in progress), it’s sobering to see them bounced on nearly a weekly basis, despite good reviews and strong production histories (re: “Waiting on Sean Flynn” and “Liberation”; “Next of Kin” is still in the rewrite stage and not yet on the market, and “Depth of Field” is mired down in a structural writer’s block, though I trust George Montgomery, my war photographer protagonist and a character I’m intensely fond of, will one day prowl the stage).

Even I’m feeling it. Though I don’t imagine I’ll ever be accused of writing fluff–it’s just not in my nature nor, honestly, my range of talents…it’s dark (but busy) in here, folks–I feel the fabulist side of my work calling. I’ve kind of bounced back and forth between gritty stuff about war and politics, and more surreal, dreamlike work, and of late, the dreamlike stuff has been drawing me. It still tends to be kind of heavy, but there’s usually a good deal of humor (attempted at least), and the goal is less about exploring the depths of human cruelty and more about playing with the underpinnings of psychology, the relationship between perception and the doings of the unconscious psyche, and the strangeness that grows from their intersection. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” I’ve also been playing with taking “genres”–such as the noir detective world–and twisting it around with magical realism. Less Michael Herr, more Phillip K. Dick.

It’s not going to make a difference for awhile, I suspect. When your subscriber base is shrinking, grants are evaporating, arts budgets are being cut, ticket sales are down, and corporate and private donations are shrinking, theatres tend toward the familiar over the new, relying on plays with established track records or, if they’re doing new plays, choosing playwrights with established names. (I guess I’m an established name at this point, but I have a very short reach.) It’s not just Portland; I’m hearing this everywhere. Right now it’s more important to keep the patient breathing than happy.

But, as recessions don’t last forever, neither do periods of contraction in the arts. Inevitably, people tire of hap-hap-happy formulas or variations on favorite themes and want something that’ll challenge them. And, as we enter–for good or ill–a time of dynamic change, I think audiences will eventually need work that helps them understand a chaotic world rather than merely assures them that the world will continue for another day. For me personally, that probably means a fallow period for productions (or productions on smaller scales), but the relationship between writing and production is cyclical as well. When you’re not getting produced, you write to make up for the bum news; so I’m actually experiencing a creative upsurge, where I have so much stuff written in notebooks that I haven’t even had time to type it up, much less revise, workshop, and submit it. Those kinds of periods don’t last forever, either: you have ride them while you can. In short, I’m doing a lot of writing. And having fun with it because I’m relatively free to write whatever the hell I want. Freedom sometimes really is a word for nothing left to lose.

To my artist friends, especially those who don’t live or die by performance, I say: work, damn it. Survive, have fun, and lose yourself in the creative process; so that when things turn up, you’ll have fresh new plays and photographs and paintings and poems and songs to introduce to a world starved for the new. And for my performer friends, I guess this is a time to work on your chops, cherish and reconnect with your friends, and find solace in small projects. It’s not fun. It’s scary. And it’s going to be hard to keep the faith. But like the good times, the bad ones don’t last forever.

They just feel like they do.