The Holy Ear
For many theatre practitioners, the act of creation is tied to the act of living—they cannot exist separately. This is the first of a series of posts that explore positive practices and principles to help keep our art mindful, expressive, and sustainable. Phil Weaver-Stoesz is a multi-disciplinary director, devisor, and performer studying and working at Arizona State University.
As developing artists, we spend countless hours training our skills. We go to fight workshops, voice classes, dance lessons, design seminars, writing groups, and directing intensives. We tirelessly hone the practice of our craft to become well-oiled machines of creation. Then we step out into the world, skills in tow, ready to make some art!
But...wait. How do I know what art to create? I spend years figuring out the “how,” but what about the “what”? I have all this energy and passion, but no idea what to do with it all.
Producers and directors at LORT theatres might answer the question of what to produce with a different, easier question: what will people pay to see? The latest popular living room drama, a new adaptation of Shakespeare, a play to showcase our popular talent and...hell, A Christmas Story again, why not?
For me, the idealistic, naïve millennial who’s wholly uninterested in money-making, the answer becomes tougher to wrap my head around. I could go with the typical method of “create what interests you,” but does the world really need a cyberpunk reimagining of Endgame or Macbeth à la Whedon’s Firefly? These projects might really interest me, but taking time to create them feels a bit like artistic masturbation.
So how do I choose my next project? I propose a deceptively difficult solution: listen. While many artists typically think about fighting to create, whether for lack of time, money or motivation, the struggle to properly listen, I propose, is equally treacherous—and perhaps more important.
Instead of asking the simple question: what will interest me? We must ask a more difficult question: What is necessary? We must listen, then speak. If you feel like your work is just yelling into the void, you might have gotten that mantra backwards.
While many artists typically think about fighting to create, whether for lack of time, money or motivation, the struggle to properly listen, I propose, is equally treacherous—and perhaps more important.
Our listening works on two scales: communal and individual.
To listen to the communal conversation, look no further than your Facebook newsfeed or Twitter page. Watching #Blacklivesmatter, #CaitlynJenner or #RachelDolezal unfold in the collective consciousness paints a pretty obvious picture of what issues our country is thinking about.
The issue is these communal conversations are, by definition, simplified and categorized. Bigots vs. Hippies, Corporations vs. Individuals, Oppressors vs. Oppressed. Big issues are thrown into the gladiatorial ring where warriors hurl poison-tipped diatribes at each other until they’ve unintentionally made everyone sick of listening.
But you know what? These are exactly the articles it’s our duty to read. As artists, we must engage openly and encounter a wide range of perspectives, looking for what is necessary to be said. If I see a headline like “Fox News’ Twisted Take on Charleston,” I take a deep breath and read it all the way through.
From the ranks of the politically furious, we can distill the important issues of our time: institutional discrimination, the ambiguity of personal identity, our relationships with digital technology. These give us a good basis of what issues we, as a community of minds, are wrestling with. But these themes are only the beginning; we must push one step further. We are artists, after all, not journalists.
So we must also listen on the individual scale. This is the murky world of human intuition and feelings, of experiences and relationships. We must listen to our friend mourn their dead cat or the argument about Game of Thrones two tables over. Listening to the individual means activating those empathy neurons and seeing the world through another’s perspective. What are the concerns of a middle school girl? A business executive? A single mother? A war veteran?
Our art comes in when these two levels are combined on the stage: our characters are individuals; our worlds are communal. We must strike a golden balance between issue and intimacy. Too many communal issues and our shows feel impersonal; too much human intimacy and they lack poignancy.
When a show strikes that golden balance, they tend to turn heads. In 1949, Bertolt Brecht toured the anti-war play Mother Courage through war-torn Europe. In 1992, Anna Deavere Smith fearlessly portrayed the human aspects of the Rodney King riots in Twilight, Los Angeles 1992. In 2013, Ayad Akhtar wrote Disgraced, asking questions about Islamophobia and religious identity only a few miles from Ground Zero.
These artists knew how to create, but before that, they knew how to listen. They experienced the world around them and spoke only after they knew what to say. They developed the “holy ear” that listens to the news and to the neighbors. And when they chose to open their mouths, they knew of what they spoke.
We live in a world with unprecedented access to information and innovation. As the wealth of human experience grows, it becomes increasingly important to find and create what is necessary. To open our minds, develop the holy ear, and fully listen. Then speak.
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I love the question: what is necessary? I know my answers to that question may not always be the obvious ones, but that makes them even more worthy of fighting to create. I also ask this question of every performance I see. The ones that offer an answer are the ones I don't regret attending. The ones that stumble through without an answer are the ones I wish I could change.I hope the next installments help reveal more of what you see as necessary for the future performances you create. Thanks Phil!
Hah! It took me a long time to figure out that I needed to ask the question of "what is necessary?" If I can produce one work in my lifetime that feels truly necessary to see, I'll be ecstatic. To me, making work that resonates like Smith's or Akhtar's is a lofty enterprise, one that I too often abandon for work that, in many respects, is simply easier to make.
I haven't figured out how to make work like that, but I propose that listening is the first step.
I agree. I wonder what the necessary work is in Arizona right now. I'm constantly seeing work in Toronto and wondering what is necessary here and if I'm seeing it, or whether it is a gap I can fill. Or if perhaps it's not as simple as looking to see what's drawing the attention of one city or state, but patterns larger.I guess it's a question of how large to listen. When to limit the range and decide what to do.