Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Making the Grade

Nosedive is amidst casting Suburban Peepshow, and we've finished casting all but two roles. Considering we're a little more than nine weeks away from opening, I'm not worried. Yet.

We've also found a space and date for our upcoming fundraising comedy show/party, but I'll give more details on that as soon as we come up with a silly name and more details for the damn thing (I'll give you a hint: it'll be in late-February).

* * *

Like with many of my posts, this may tread towards the "Well, DUH, James" Department, so my apologies if the following is excruciatingly obvious to the point of absurdity. Sometimes I just need to remind myself of these self-evident points.

Amidst the discussions that have been going on in the theatre blogosphere about development hell, the writer/director dichotomy, authorial intent, theory versus practice and supporting oneself as a theatre artist, I've been thinking about the importance of self-improvement in terms of artistic abilities and how one goes about this. I brought this up very briefly in the comments section of my "Bottom Up" entry (and sort of ties in - albeit very, very tangentially - with Laura Axelrod's and George Hunka's recent respective blog posts) and I wanted to take this time to expand on it.

(This entry is in a way an addendum to George's entry entitled "The Theatre Writer" and mainly more for writers, designers and actors rather than directors and I'll explain why in a moment.)

When entering any creative field, it's important to keep that mental list of who you believe to be the "cream of the crop" in your field and constantly test yourself to see how well your work holds up. I'm not talking about comparing your work to the work of your peers, I mean comparing your work to the work of the heavyweights of the past and the current heavyweights in the field and being as harsh a critic of your own work as you can.

In other words, for the playwrights out there, who's at the apex of your "Best of the Best" pyramid? What's his (or her) best work (in your as-honest-and-critical-as-you-can-possibly-be assessment)? What's your best work? Compare them side-by-side. How does yours match up? And I don't mean in terms of genre or style, I mean in terms of craft. Ask yourself the tough questions. Where is this person's play engaging where mine is dull? How is his work consistently interesting from beginning to end while mine has ebbs and flows? What makes this a celebrated and critically acclaimed play and mine a complete nonentity? Where is his work tight and polished where mine is meandering and sloppy?

And while you ask yourself these questions, don't fall back on answers like, "This was a different time when theatre was well-regarded," "He had connections and I don't," "He was lucky and I'm not."

No excuses. Be as tough as possible.

(Cerebus cartoonist Dave Sim writes about this all the time, explaining that the difference between the amateur who's fine with staying an amateur and the amateur who wants to be a professional is that the amateur who's fine with staying an amateur compares his work to that of a professional's, squints his eyes and goes, "Close enough," while the amateur who wants to be a professional can't open his eyes wide enough to see just exactly what, where and how big the disparity is between his work and that of a professional's.)

The reason why this is something that writers (and designers) can do with greater ease than directors is because directors don't have immediate access to the works of great directors (or rather Great Directors) past. As Pete has mentioned, when people ask him who his favorite theatre directors are, he can't quite answer them, because he hasn't experienced a large number of any director's work to make a quantifiable assessment. We can't exactly say that we're big admirers of (say) Peter Brook's or Gene Frankel's work, since how many productions of their work - if any - have we seen? (And I mean, how many live productions of their work have we seen? Videotaped productions don't exactly count, do they?) We can really only refer to contemporary artists in this regard.

(This is very tangential I know but I figured I'd at least explain my parenthetical statement a few paragraphs above. And of course, to the directors reading this, feel free to point out any errors in this line of thought.)

A number of actors I know are actually pretty good at this (much better than writers, I think...don't know why that is). Actors often look at film and television actors and study their favorites, seeing and pinpointing what they do that make them so great.

The reason why you should do this with work from an artist that you consider to be way, way, way out of your league is that you can't fall back on the previously mentioned sour grapes. It's easy to say, "That person knew somebody," or, "That person has an agent" with a well-paid hack. But that gets you nowhere. Having aspirations to be the next well-paid hack isn't exactly the best of aspirations.

I should clarify that I'm not pointing fingers or anything; this entry is just as directed towards myself as anyone else. (I'm very often guilty of just squinting my eyes and going, "Close enough," myself.)

Anyway, this could be a good way to circumvent the never-ending development process.

Always hating his own work,

James "Wrong, All Wrong" Comtois



Blogger Dan said...

Finally figured out that the nosedive frame was making your comments inaccessible to me.

This is a very smart post. That's all I can say.

But why haven't we discussed our mutual love for the movie Ed Wood?

3:47 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Ah! Good to see that you've been able to bypass the problem.

Well, even though that's all you can say, I will say thank you.

And I didn't realize you liked Ed Wood as well (it really is one of my personal faves).

3:57 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

This blogger comments layout, with the pictures, it makes us seem like a primitive comic book. me...

11:41 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...


This is especially true with our photos just being headshots of ourselves (with different facial expressions). Despite the scowl in my photo, I'm giggling right now now that you've pointed this out.

11:48 AM  

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