Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Earlier this week at rehearsals for The Long Count, the cast and crew meandered over to the idea of ability, and more particularly the perception of ability. We were discussing the declarative phrase “I can sing,” and the way it changes throughout one’s life. A five year-old who says he can sing is different than the fifteen year-old who says he can sing, is different than the twenty-five year-old who says he can sing…between the first and last points on this spectrum you watch an evolution of ego. The five year-old is not discussing aesthetics, he is discussing basic fact: he can cause his voice to create a tone that approximates what we know as music. The twenty-five year-old who says he can sing is really saying that he can sing in a manner that most people find pleasing.
Children sing because they want to sing, without additional motive. The adult may also sing for themselves, but the ones who declare that they can sing are stating that perception in terms of how others will hear them. The corollary is what I would argue is the trend to produce less artistic work as one grows older. I don’t have enough data or enough mathematical acumen to properly articulate this, but I would posit that one’s quantifiable creative output is inversely proportional to the individual’s sense of standards. There are, of course, outliers to this mostly unscientific hypothesis.
Yesterday I had a unique opportunity to observe three different groups of teenagers at three different levels of practicing the theatre discipline. It was illuminating.
In the morning, a cast of five Neo-Futurists, including myself, drove out to the Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights to participate in an Arts Week event organized by several of the high schools in the district. We performed a single showing of Too Much Light and then moved into a large classroom with twenty students to conduct a two-hour workshop on crafting the Very Short play.
In the evening I chaperoned my group of After School Matters kids to go see the newest work by the Albany Park Theatre Project, a harrowing and passionate work titled Remember Me Like This, based on the true story of one of the company’s young members.
(And if you have never seen a performance by the Albany Park Theatre Project, you owe it to yourself to do so. The love and craftsmanship of the teens in this troupe and the adults who help them along rivals and often exceeds the work of a number of professional companies in this city. This was my first time seeing them in nearly five years and after last night it is clear to me how unacceptable this hiatus was to my show-going soul.)
None of this is to compare and contrast the relative “talent” of these three groups. This is about motive moreso than talent.
ASM is a city-run project that attempts to entice high school students to learn more about various artistic disciplines, such as photography, dance, or even martial arts. I co-teach for Striding Lion InterArts Workshop, which imparts an interdisciplinary approach to performance; combining writing with music and dance and whatever else we can put together onstage.
The ASM setup, however, is that these programs are to be treated as a job…the kids are paid to show up on time for three afternoons a week and do the work we ask them to do. The kids can be “fired” for poor job performance or any other such transgression, at the discretion of the instructors. A few weeks ago Dana had to fire two girls for instigating a physical fight with a third and then refusing to apologize or back down from their comments, and then attacking Dana personally when she told them to leave.
As a city program, ASM suffers from a number of the same problems that plague the city’s schools, many of which seem to be the result of well-intentioned bureaucracy that is divorced from practical reality.
Each program is expected to recruit and retain a minimum number of apprentices. The result of this edict is that Ben and Dana and I spend the first few weeks before the start of the program feverishly attempting to convince as many students as possible to take our workshop. We sell the workshop, and as a hallmark of good salesmanship is to point out the most attractive features of the product, we push hard on the button that proclaims YOU GET PAID to do this.
As you can then expect, what this large-net methodology does is not only recruit those students who are genuinely interested in learning live performance, but also recruit a number of students who are just there to make some cash. And while some days have been better than others, the resistance of some in this latter group has been a draining, toxic thing that has for some time threatened the creation of the final show that these kids are due to present in just a few weeks. I can’t prove it, but I’m fairly sure that at least one of the girls in the group who was so excited to work with us at the beginning quit the program in part because of the way that others were dragging the process down.
The mandated minimums are born, I am sure, of the idea that since the earliest programs did such a good job working with, say, ten students, that surely the program could do twice as much good when they are required, under pain of finance withdrawal, to deal with twenty. The reality this idea fails to address is that part of what made those earliest programs so successful was because those ten students genuinely wanted to be there.
Ten people who are fully committed to an action will always execute that action with greater success than twenty people who are only slightly interested in the success of that action. This is not rocket science, this is an understanding of basic human nature. The point should be to assemble a group of people who would do this work for free, and then reward them with payment when they do the job well. The current setup empowers you to screen for interest; I wish we were in a better position to screen for compulsion.
This is, I would say, the key difference between some of my ASM kids and the APTP kids–for the latter, the desire to be in the process is motivated by the desire to create something special, not just onstage but also within the familial atmosphere of their ensemble. On the same token, the kids the Neo-Futurists worked with yesterday morning all had to sign up minutes before the workshop began, knowing that our workshop, as well as those of the other instructors taking part in Arts Week, had a cap of twenty students. Many of those who signed up were motivated to do so in no small part by the performance they had just seen; they came because something in the work we did inspired them to want to learn how to create their own work in a similar fashion.
This is a hope that I wish to see realized when I teach again on Tuesday; that the ASM apprentices who attended Remember Me Like This will understand the work that they are capable of producing, knowing the work that other teenagers were capable of creating before their very eyes.
Last night, as we walked the ASM kids to the bus stop that would take them back to the school and their waiting rides home, I snapped at a few of them who were horsing around in what I felt was a reckless manner–tossing and pushing each other around on the sidewalk very close to a busy city street. One of the apprentices, Samuel, turned back to me and said “Lighten up, Bilal, we’re teenagers.”
For a moment, I considered that maybe Samuel was right, that I was being too authoritarian. And then I remembered that to think so was to actually do a disservice to these kids.
Yes, having been teenagers ourselves, we may expect teenagers to do stupid things, but we do those teenagers no favors when we allow them to become self-aware of that perception. Teenagers make stupid mistakes, there’s no reason I should stand idly by while they do something stupid on purpose simply because they’re teenagers.
I’m not just trying to impart cursory education by working for this program, I’m trying to impart standards. I’m trying to make it understood that there is compensation beyond money, that just because you can get paid for doing the barest minimum of work doesn’t mean that you should settle for that state of being.
I have no idea if this message is getting through. All I’ve got is hope that is does.