Arts-Related Nostalgia and Goodbyes

It’s the last day that I will be taking classes at the University of Michigan.  This called for some grade-A, mascara-running, life-pondering, empty-feeling nostalgia and sadness.  Instead, I have decided to blog about just how lucky I was to experience this university, this town, and all of the art is has to offer.

So, here it is.  A list of the things I am glad to have experienced and sad to leave behind (in no particular order):

UMS.

UMS is a truly unique program for the University of Michigan.  Through UMS, we are able to see some of the best performers in the world for as little as $10.  That is just cool.  Some of my personal favorite UMS performances have included: Bill T. Jones’ Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray- I think this was my first UMS experience and it turned my expectations of dance and dance theatre upside down; The Cripple of Inishmaan, which showed me how simply great theatre can be done and proved to me yet again the power of good writing; Audra McDonald who I had been wanting to see perform live for at least 10 years and was not the least let down by; and Einstein on the Beach because I had never before seen something of such wide scope, innovation, or ambition.  My only regret is that I did not take more advantage of these wonderful opportunities.

The Ark.

I first went to The Ark my sophomore year to see one of my favorite bands, Blind Pilot.  The Ark is one of the most genuine spaces to see live music.  If you don’t know what I mean by that, you haven’t been there.  There is something so personal about having a staff made up of volunteers who have themselves been going to the concerts for years.  The space is intimate and bands seem to really feel at home there.  Additionally, one of the more Ann Arbor-y events I have attended in my time here was last year’s Folk Festival.  Getting to experience that classic model of folk shows that goes on for hours, ended by an out of this world set by The Avett Brothers was an experience I will never forget.

The Blind Pig.

While the atmosphere at this venue is very different from The Ark, the intimate, honest performances remain the same.  The Blind Pig feels like a space from a different era.  It’s like a safer CBGB’s- there’s a grittiness and friendliness that permeates the air.  And also, on my own nerdy level, I feel way cooler when I’m at the Pig.  And that’s always a good thing.

Porch music.

I was reminded of this in the best way possible the other night when walking back from The Rude Mechanicals’ aesthetically amazing production of Machinal.  It was a beautiful night, and as I walked down my street, I heard some really skillful bluegrass coming from the porch of one of the co-ops.  In that one moment, I felt like I was fully experiencing spring in Ann Arbor.  I am not a musician myself, so being able to just walk by really talented people playing because they feel like it and love what they’re doing is comforting and purely joyful.

Basement Arts.

I’ve expressed my undying love for Basement Arts on this blog too many times to subject the readers to that lecture of adoration again.  I will just say that Basement was my gateway into the theatre world on campus, I have made some of the best friends I have ever known through Basement, and I admire the daring spirit of all hands on deck free theatre that is present in Basement.

The Michigan Theatre.

The Michigan is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever entered.  When you walk in, you feel as if you’ve been transported through time.  The sounds of the organ floating through the air, the buzzing audience awaiting a really great lecture, movie, or concert, the brilliant tapestries and paintings filling the space– there’s really nothing like it.  I’ve seen some great movies and invigorating talks in The Michigan and the combined intellectual and visual stimulation with the beauty around me made me feel, “This is how it’s supposed to be.”

The music and dance departments.

I put both of these departments in one category, because, unfortunately, I have not experienced them as much as I would have liked.  But I have deep admiration for the students and professors in these departments who consistently turn out professional products. They explore a beauty and vulnerability that has really touched me.  I can’t wait to see what they’ll go on to do .

Witt’s End.

Now we’re getting to the personal part of the blog.  I just joined the improv group Witt’s End, and it was one of the smartest decisions I have made.  Being surrounded by these funny and smart people has made me a better and more interesting person.  I have become a more spontaneous and gut-driven person.  I am more quick on my feet.  I have learned to trust myself, and I happened to make some really great friends in the process.

The Theatres- Mendelssohn, Power Center, Arthur Miller, and Hill.

I feel so lucky to have been able to both be an audience member and somehow involved in a show in each of these spaces.  There is something incredible and otherworldly about standing on these stages.  During my time here, I have also had increased respect for the audience.  I really enjoy being an audience member.  There’s something so communally beautiful about going on a journey with complete strangers.  These theatres have become my home away from home the past 3 years, and I will really miss that safe space to explore and shape my artistic sensibilities.

The Department of Theatre & Drama.

My family.  My companions through this coming of age stage.  My collaborators.  My teachers. My friends.  I do not know how I can possibly leave all of this behind.  I have learned so much from every single person who has passed through this department in my time here.  I know that I will have the opportunity to work with some brilliant people in my career but I cannot fathom how any experience can match the emotional and intellectual depths of the personal and professional relationships I have made in this department.  I have undying gratitude.  I have learned so much from my successes and failures in the Walgreen and around campus.

It’s going to be very hard to leave all this behind.  In tough moments like these, I always return to the incomparable Tony Kushner and his words from Angels in America: “Nothing’s lost forever.  In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress.  Longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.”

Performance Art

I’ve been thinking a lot about performance art lately. This may or may not be related to the fact that I just recently performed in a piece that might be called performance art, but I don’t know for sure. Its a topic that has fascinated me for a long time. In case you don’t know what “performance art” is, here’s how wikipedia defines it:

In art, performance art is a performance presented to an audience, traditionally interdisciplinary. Performance may be either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. It can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer’s body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work.

That might be the least helpful definition ever. But it’s ambiguity is central to what makes performance art just so interesting and engaging. It can be anything. There are no rules. Just make some art. And that makes performance art awesome!

And performance art is, like, Yoko Onos thing. And who doesnt like Yoko Ono?
And performance art is, like, Yoko Ono's thing. And who doesn't like Yoko Ono?

Perhaps the most well-known of the performance artists (that I’m familiar with) is Laurie Anderson, a wonderful musician/spoken word artist/visual artist/performance artist. She plays the violin, but only sometimes. She also plays the electronics…pretty much all the time.

So is this video performance art? Maybe. You are the audience. You are watching it. But it certainly is recorded and doesn’t exist in space so much. But that distintion really doesn’t matter, I suppose. This song(?) is Anderson’s biggest hit, her breakthrough single. It’s a pretty solid representation of the kind of work she does.

But this is all around the central point which is that I love this. There is so much humanity in it all-it’s just this woman telling a story. But she’s not even telling a linear story, she’s a mother calling for her daughter and then she’s not anymore and superman and wars and what? It’s beautiful though. The music. The words. The vocoder that makes her seem like a human but also not a human and is technology the distance between us or the rope connecting us? It all raises a lot of questions, but questions that don’t necessarily have answer or want to be answered.

Anderson came to the Power Center last year and stupefied me through her piece “Delusion.” It was one of those experiences that I couldn’t quite shake off. I loved the newness of it all, but also the power of it all. She told stories with musica accompaniment for the duration of the entire show. Some were connected, others weren’t. But it created a plot. Not a narrative, but  a sense of emotional journey during the show. I can’t remember the details anymore of it all, but I do remember the feeling after seeing it. Like I found something amazing and whole and unique. Like I witnessed an art form that has never been seen before.

And I suppose that’s what performance art makes me feel like. Each piece is it’s own little world and has it’s own little rules. But it is beautiful. Or at least it is to me.

More on this later…

By other roads

It’s easy, sometimes, to forget that train travel is still a thriving and often prevalent means of transportation. In our part of the world, the railways are used primarily for cargo, and passenger trains are sparsely scattered and infrequently used, even around sufficiently populated urban conurbations. (Competition with air and roads, increased regulations, and other conditions in the 20th century made it economically unsupportable in the US.) In places with a sufficiently consistently high population density, however, rail travel is sustainable. Not only is the infrastructure present, or merely useable, but it is often the most practical method of transportation, often the standard.

Traveling by rail, especially over long distances, affords things that other means of transport do not. Unlike driving, one does not have to be engaged in operating the vehicle; anything one does will have little impact on how quickly (or whether) the destination is reached. You’ll be sitting here for four hours regardless, hours in which you might as well catch up on work or enjoy a novel, hours in which to sleep or converse or do nothing at all.

Or, perhaps, one could look out the window.

From onboard, the train doesn’t so much cut through things as it glides past them, disparate, unaffected. Cities in grimy detail, concrete barriers covered in several layers of street art, painted facades gilded by the late afternoon sun. Cities glistening in green-blue glass and brushed metallics, modern structures like an architectural photo spread. There are ordinary towns marked by the corner-shop and dog-walkers, suburban rows that are neat and identical and silent. The countryside rises and falls. Sometimes it’s gently rolling fields, alternately saturated oddslot blocks of verdant emerald and dark tilled earth, little yellow houses scattered on the landscape. Sometimes the land begins to rise, and then there are muddy rivers, perhaps, exposed rocky outcroppings, slopes carpeted in forest. An industrial park appears for a moment, then disappears again, concealed by trees.

There are people, too, people tired and harried and impatient. (They get on the train, or off— it doesn’t matter.) They populate the platforms, waiting, hurrying, tarrying, interested, disinterested. The train coasts in, a ship to port, coming to this specific place with its specific people, its specific identity, then departs again, leaving them all behind. Things do not stop out there in the world. Things happen. People work, live, exist. But on the train, they are not states of being to which you are rooted. You are transitory, in geography and in a way even in time. It’s as if you’ve been dropped into street view; things are proceeding, lives are progressing. They are important once you are there, but you are not. You’re merely passing through; not a visitor even, but a viewer.

7 ‘Aesthetic Experiences’ I can Remember Where Art More or Less Saved / Affirmed my Life, or Something

My junior semester is ending and I’m feeling reflective and wistful and seriously stressed and time-crunched and I’ll probably do poorly on my exams / final papers, and I’m thinking about how or why I’ve ended up becoming an ‘arts blogger’ and vaguely thinking about things like ‘what is art’ and ‘why does it matter’ or ‘what does it mean to me,’ and before long I’m realizing that ‘art’ in general is pretty much the one thing that seems to ‘matter’ to me, and I recently read this thing this philosopher guy Ludwig Wittgenstein said—Wittgenstein said, “It’s impossible for me to say one word about all that music has meant to me in my life. How, then, can I hope to be understood?” (which is broody and philosopher-y but so trueeeee, right?)—and I stopped and thought about it for a minute and was like, ‘whoah,’ and I just instantly wanted to write similar things about ‘all that music / literature / art in general has meant to me’ in my life, even though it’s kinda impossible to say how much they’ve meant and I know that’s cliché to say but I also know it’s true. Let’s face it we’re bombarded with art-talk almost constantly in this day-n-age, what with the internet and 18 credits of humanities courses and blogs like this one etc., but maybe it’d be cool if we all took a moment, as this semester ends, as beautiful spring begins, to breathe and think about what art ‘means to you’—maybe people can like comment on this post, answering the question ‘what does art mean to you?’ (nobody will do it)—and breathe in and out, slowwwlllly, and maybe just, like, appreciate (?) those moments in your personal history where a song made your stomach flutter or a film made you cry or a book made you think and maybe just, like, feel good about how sometimes, despite the generalized shittyness of existence and final exams and essays, things can be beautiful?

Earlier this year, I read a post (http://www3.arts.umich.edu/ink/2012/02/15/looking/) from my arts, ink blogger friend Jessy Larson that said, “After 2.5 years of being an art history major, I have watched myself care less and less about what a work of art actually looks like” and “I rarely have that ‘oh this sculpture is so beautiful!’ feeling anymore.” It made me feel sad. Because I know the feeling—or lack thereof—all too well. The ‘nothing really seems oh-so-beautiful’ feeling. And to hear the feeling from one of my good friends, well, that hurt. I mean the older I get the less mystical and mind-blowing and wonderful a lot of art seems. A lot of it just seems like average things average people make, averagely. A lot of it seems shitty—like that episode of South Park where Stan starts seeing everything as shit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You’re_Getting_Old). That episode is really good. Watch it, if you haven’t. #Disillusionment. I often can watch a ‘tear-jerker’ film and feel Nothing. I can read a novel in one sitting, without once feeling excitement or suspense or sorrow or empathy or anything really, with complete knowledge of how the story will end before I reach the final page, with vague antipathy towards the author for writing a predictable story, with vaguer antipathy towards myself for predicting. I can listen to a song without really ‘hearing’ it. Maybe I’m just getting older. Maybe I’ve oversaturated myself; after 21 years of book after book after song after song after film after film, they’ve all started to ‘taste like chicken.’ Etc. Etc.

But as my…’aesthetic experiences’ (?)…become rarer, they also become more precious. And it’s night’s like these, when I’m pounding on my keyboard in the grad library and have 10000 papers due soon and finals to study for but won’t study for, when I’ve just read a deep-seeming quotation from an Austrian philosopher, that I feel compelled to drop the ennui and the blasé and the jaded and the three years of A-grade analytical essays re art for university courses for a second and feel compelled to just run with my inexplicable current passion vaguely about ‘art’ and to acknowledge its ability to make me tremble, cry, hope, acknowledge its ineffable…something.

So these are some of my top ‘aesthetic experiences’ I could remember.

1. In 7th grade, I was just starting to learn how to play the drums and was like ‘studying’ John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), who is probably my favorite drummer, and I remember this one night: there was a thunderstorm and I couldn’t sleep and I was worried about going to school the next morning for some angsty seventh-grader-y reason—maybe I had a presentation, maybe some kids were going to pick on me—and I was listening to “Stairway to Heaven” on my first CD player ever, which was a P.O.S. Sony, via big whole-ear-covering headphones and I cranked the volume all the way up and sobbed uncontrollably and made vague promises to myself about ‘being a better person’ at school the next morning and about getting good at playing drums so that I could be a super famous drummer and so that I could always have music in my life.

2. In 11th or 12th grade I was grounded and alone in my room and bored and decided to read for whatever reason, so I downloaded “The Catcher in the Rye” and read it as a Microsoft Word document on my like 7in.-by-12 in.-netbook screen in like two sittings, and I liked it, so I Googled “books like The Catcher in the Rye” and got the result “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and downloaded it and read it as a .doc too, in one sitting, and loved it and felt like the protagonist in it was pretty much me exactly and felt good knowing there were ‘people like me out there’ and decided—and I mean decided—I needed to ‘participate’ in life more—that’s pretty much like the whole point of the book: you have to participate, in life, instead of just being a ‘wallflower’—and now I still think about ‘participation’ in life very often, and if I hadn’t read that book I’d probably participate in life less.

3. In high school in my first band ever we covered the song “99 Red Balloons” and every time we played it I would get PUMPED and hit my drums way harder than normal—like to the point that my entire arms would hurt from it and my hands would blister—even when we we’re just playing in my basement for nobody, and but one time we were playing at a stupid place called “His Rock café,” which was basically a medium-sized stained-carpeted room with musty couches pushed up against the walls and shitty lighting, and after we played some shitty screamo band played next and their guitarist jokingly played the 99-Red-Balloons riff as they were tuning up to like make fun of my band or something, but I wasn’t even mad—I felt like ‘I don’t care if anyone thinks “99 Red Balloons” is a lame song because when we play that song we kick its ass and nobody can tell me otherwise, ever, especially not this stupid screamo guitarist kid.’

4. Summer 2010 I was jobless and had way too much free time—it seems like most of my best ‘aesthetic / art-related experiences’ happen during periods of ‘too much free time,’ I just noticed—and drove myself to Borders (RIP) and bought the 1,000 page behemoth Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which my creative-writing teacher whom I liked way more than 95% of my teachers had suggested I read over the summer, and for ~2weeks I read it for ~7hrs. every day and only stopped to like eat or urinate or stuff like that, and I’ll probably never read so consistently constantly intensely deeply ever again ever, and it made me fall in love with reading—I’d always liked reading, but I couldn’t take our relationship to the next level before that fateful ‘infinite summer’—and made me realize other people exist. ‘Made me realize other people exist’? Yeah, well, it’s kinda hard to explain but when you’re a jaded, big-university-attending, blasé, rocker drummer cool guy like me you tend to be a little solipsistic and self-centered and egotistical and oh-so-alone and lone-wolf-y, to the point that skepticism about other’s consciousness isn’t all that far-fetched. But in Infinite Jest I saw a conscientious human on the page, for 1,000 pages, and I ‘interfaced’ with him, and I realized people exist outside my head, realized that although I’m literally at the center of my universe, because of how perception works, I’m not at the center of The Universe.

5. Every time I hear the Crime in Stereo lyrics “It comes around when I need it most / it’s mostly closer to me than anything / closer than you could ever be / the antidote for everything” (which reference music), I think something like “The effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence”—Schopenhauer.

6. Summer 2011 I could never sleep and would always stay up until like 5 a.m., and music was beginning to lose its luster for me—this was the summer I really started developing that ‘nothing feels oh-so-beautiful anymore’ feeling—and so I started listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Attenas to Heaven” (which is my favorite album title ever btw) every night to fall asleep, because some of my friends had told me they listened to ‘post-rock’ to sleep, and, yeah, it helped me sleep every night because every night I’d sorta ‘lose myself’ in the music and ‘get carried away’ and sorta enter into a trance or something and meditate and think about things I wouldn’t normally think about, like God or lack thereof (maybe I just thought about God because of the name of the band / album [but I like to think I thought about God because of the music itself]), and one night I literally Lifted My Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven during a big climax in one song—if you don’t know anything about post-rock, it has like ebbs and flows and ‘climaxes’—and held my fists up for like two entire minutes, in the middle of the night, lying supine on my bed, looking out my bedroom’s big window, at the stars / ‘Heaven,’ and my stomach was dropping non-stop.

7. Once I thought, “Art, in general, is the only thing about the world that seems prima facie ‘meaningful’ or ‘life-affirming’ or ‘Good’ to me, and without it I’m literally not sure I’d have ‘the will to live,’” in a near-silent large arch-ceilinged room in a graduate library while all around me students idly typed things on computers and coughed and flipped pages and maintained facial expressions communicating ‘I’d rather be dead right now than doing this mind-numbing school-related thing.’

Untitled

Right now I am at that exciting part of my college career where I get to figure out a topic for an honors thesis for my art history major.  Admittedly (and probably weirdly), I’m pretty enthusiastic about this and have sacrificed all of my actual papers due this week to research topics for this, which I’m not even supposed to start for like 4 months I don’t think.  But in any case, I’ve finalized a topic with my thesis director and am prepared to throw back into the water the flopping around, almost dead fish which are my previous attempts at a topic.  So here, for your viewing pleasure, are some cool (or at least I think they are) tidbits from art history that I came upon in my search…

  1. Les Femmes Tondues – after the liberation of France from the Nazis in 1944, women accused of sleeping with German officers ceremoniously had their heads shaved in public areas like city squares, fountains, or war memorials.  Some interesting writing has been done by the historian Richard D.E. Burton about the French love of and delight in gruesome spectacle; my intent would have been to view les Femmes Tondues as a performance of indirect feminine castration, also in consideration to visuality as identity.
  1. Victor Hugo’s graphic work – most people don’t realize that apart from being a writer, Victor Hugo did do some kind of weird art.  Most of it is things you would expect, like dark Romantic castles or stormy landscapes, but then there are also his drawing titled “Justitia,” of a guillotined head being thrust into the sky by the force of the decapitation.  It is probably good I didn’t pursue this topic further because I have no idea what to make of that.
  1. Pornographic prints of Marie-Antoinette – there are a million valid reasons as to why this topic was a problem from the start. Number one being that it would be a thesis on porn.  Regardless, there are a lot of very interesting prints of the queen, mostly because of the way they single her out and scapegoat her solely because of her gender.  There are also some great ones of her as mythic animals, which is always fun.
Hugos Justitia
Hugo's "Justitia"

New and Exciting

I spend a lot of time on this blog geeking out about new plays and their development.  This is partially because I find something so incredibly out of this world exciting about new works.  This is also because I feel like new works are often overlooked by the general public, and I hope that I can make one person out there reading this blog see a poster for a new play and be willing to take a chance on it.  Passion and advocacy, that is where I stand.

There are generally three stages of new works.  I’ve touched on this in previous posts, so I’ll just give a quick review.  Remember, no two plays are alike in their developmental processes.  These three steps can come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors.

The reading: This can happen many different ways, usually either within a close group of friends or collaborators, door closed, or on a stage with actors sitting the whole time with a small audience.  This is usually the first time the playwright has heard his work read aloud.  He has another critical eye or two in the room (director, dramaturg, possible producer, etc) to help him use the reading to the best of his ability.  In this setting, the actors have the script in hand.  There is no blocking- they are usually at music stands or sitting, depending on the setting.  For audiences who are not text-oriented or used to really focusing on the writing, this type of production can feel a bit mundane or confusing because they cannot see the full picture.  This is mostly for the writer, although sometimes it can help potential investors or collaborators decide if they want to work on the production.  From this stage, the playwright usually makes tons of revisions to get to…

The staged reading/developmental production: Again, this stage can take two different forms.  The staged reading is similar to the initial reading in that actors still have scripts in hand, but it is closer to a full production.  There is blocking, which means there is also a director attached to the production.  Sometimes there are a couple furniture pieces, minimal lighting, and the suggestions of costumes as well.  There is a small audience for this production.  This gives everyone an idea of what the piece looks like on its feet, how it moves theatrically.  The other way this stage can work is called a developmental production.  If done as a developmental production, the piece generally looks the same– the blocking and design elements aren’t too complex– but the  actors are off-book and can give themselves over to the material more fully because of this.  In this stage, the playwright usually has more rehearsal time with the cast and is revising throughout the process.  That is why things are kept simple– they could change at any moment.  Of course, the hope is that this will lead to the end goal…

Full production: This is what most people are used to seeing in a theatre.  Impressive lighting, sets, costumes, actors running all of the stage, impeccable direction, a show (usually) that will look exactly the same from night to night.  For the first full production, the playwright might be involved, but after that (unless you’re Edward Albee) the playwright is out of the picture, entrusting his work to the capable hands of theatre professionals worldwide.

This weekend, we have the opportunity to see a play that has traversed all three of these steps at this very university.  This is an opportunity that only happens once every few years, so I would suggest that we all take advantage of it.  Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Emma Jeszke, a senior in the theatre school, will be presented in Studio 1 at the Walgreen Drama Center Thursday-Sunday.  Information can be found here: http://www.music.umich.edu/departments/theatre/index.php#  This production is a part of a re-emerging initiative called Plays-in-Process, in which SMTD faculty will take student work and give it a full production.

I think this is an incredible thing both for student writers as well as audiences at the university.  As a new works nerd, this of course, is my cup of tea because it is both allowing students to cultivate their own passion for new works and advocating for a theatre community in which new works are valued.  We can do Shakespeare over and over, and I do think there is great value in that, but what good is Shakespeare if we don’t learn from him and write something that speaks to the current moment?  I have had the privilege to see Manic Pixie in its staged reading incarnation, last year at the University-sponsored Playfest, and I can say with absolute certainty that it speaks to the current moment in a way that students and community members alike should understand and encourage them to truly think.