So, in the theatre, we spend a lot of time getting ready, don’t we? Just in our program, in addition to a full 5 days of classes, we spend over twenty hours a week in rehearsals for our shows. By the time we reach opening night, we may have spent 120+ hours in rehearsal. Then we get an audience. And, of course, all of that work was to prepare us to be ready for that. For our audience.
When productions have post-show discussions with the cast, it’s always assumed that one guy will ask how everybody memorized “all those lines”. Friends of actors who aren’t performers themselves love to ask: “so how do you do it?” There’s a widespread fascination with the process of the performing artist, especially from audience members. And yet, our work is incredibly difficult to explain. Why is the actor’s process such a mystery?
For many artists, sharing the process is a vital part of their work. Playwright, MacArthur Grant recipient, and Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan Lori Parks created a performance piece in 2011 called “Watch Me Work”. For an hour and fifteen minutes per performance, Parks worked in the lobby of The Public Theatre (and subsequently in various theatres across the country), where the public could come, free of charge, watch, and then ask questions about her creative process. Recently, a performance was filmed and live streamed on HowlRound. Now, truly, almost anyone can access and view Parks’ artistic process.
Where Parks shares glimpses of her process, alternative visual artist Kelly Moore shares a width and breadth of his artistic process that few have rivaled. He’s set up a creative space in the Tesuque Flea Market outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico (pleasantly named The Dark Bird Palace, for the crows that populate the area). In The Dark Bird Palace, Moore sits, stands, eats lunch, paints, and is more than happy to strike up a conversation with anybody who dares enter the strange structure (which could easily intimidate the average tourist). Moore also writes poetry about his life and his artistic experience, and posts it weekly on his website (look for new paintings and poetry on Mondays!). He freely criticizes his audience, as well as popular American society, in the same no-holds-barred manner with which he crafts his paintings. Between his writing and his open creative space, it’s easy to feel like you can climb into Moore’s head and travel his creative path by his side.
sometimes i think my shed
is a time warp machine
where people show up from another life
sometimes i think its
a mysterious shack in the desert
where an weird guy makes art
other times i think its
a confessional booth where people
pour out their hearts
and other times
it appears to be a deeply disturbing place
to some people who walk by
looking as though they had just been tould
they had to eat liver and onions for the next year …..
its many things to many people
but mostly its a mirage that will be here
for a very short time and then
fade into the memory of the desert
just like all of us
For far simpler examples, look to shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Various talent and variety shows spend a good deal of screen time giving glimpses into the rehearsal processes of the performers.
Many theatres will have an open rehearsal before they open their show (often open exclusively to subscribers or donors), but it’s rare that an audience gets a deep look into the rehearsal process—they’re almost always limited to opening night and beyond. Is it about being secretive? About preserving the audience’s suspension of disbelief? Are we embarrassed to show something that’s yet to be perfected? Truthfully, I don’t know the answer. But, whether it’s a short, 75-minute glimpse at your process like Parks, a 24/7 open-book-experience like Kelly Moore, or somewhere in between, I think it’d be a valuable experiment to see what happens when we show our audience some of the hard work we do to fine-tune a show for their sakes.