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Stephanie Mayer-Staley

In Search of the Artistic Home

Jamie Gahlon has asked theater artists from around the country to talk about their personal search for an artistic home. Stephanie Mayer-Staley continues this series.

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What makes an artistic home? An artistic home shares many qualities with the “common” home that everybody experiences. It’s a place where one(s art) can be “birthed”, grow and live, surrounded by “family” who support and respect each other and share a common language.  It’s a place, a nest, a support system, and an incubator. Contrary to the “common” home however; an “artistic home” should be more stimulating. It needs to be fresh, challenging and open for change. Most importantly however an artistic home is where creation can happen without fear of failure.

Where and how did you find yours and what does it mean to you?
My artistic home, The Pittsburgh Playhouse of Point Park University found me eleven years ago when I was asked to interview for the position of “Head of Design” for the Conservatory of Performing Arts. As a scenic designer and artist I work in many places nationally and internationally but I always love to come home to the Playhouse. To date I have designed close to forty shows in it’s three venues so the theaters are extremely familiar to me and that very fact challenges me to go further, push harder—to create something exciting and new. It’s funny isn’t it; as artists we need to be challenged and supported; pushed and cradled. Nothing exciting ever happens in comfort or fear but in-between—walking on the edge of the cliff. The Playhouse can be “the edge of the cliff” for me. Directors, spaces, projects even budgets challenge me to “fly” and the artistic family supports with their knowledge and respect, their parachutes and safety nets. Of course there is the occasional crash, but that’s okay, because if all landings were smooth we’d never know how far we could fly.

Contrary to the “common” home however; an “artistic home” should be more stimulating. It needs to be fresh, challenging and open for change. Most importantly however an artistic home is where creation can happen without fear of failure.

How can one create and/or build an artistic home for others?
This is a multi faceted question. I’ll respond with two key ingredients:

  1. Fostering civility and respect is a key ingredient in creating an artistic home. Just like any family; artistic “families” live within a hierarchy; however hierarchy in theater does not create art; collaboration does. As an artist working in a collaborative environment like theater, we need to know that our voices are being heard and opinions respected. This does not mean that we all need to be “on the same page” all the time. In fact, disparate opinions make for an exciting and fulfilling creative process as they push us to see the complexities of a project. I believe that the more different opinions are in a room, the better the outcome will be. In a truly collaborative environment we allow all ideas to be brought the table by all members of the production team. Then we’ll sort through them, build bridges and weave them together. The best ideas often come from unlikely places, however in order to create this open minded environment we need to meet each others opinions and ideas with respect and hear each other out.
  2. Nurturing the contrasting notions of “safety and risk.” According to Ken Robinson, an education and creativity expert, creativity declines the older we get mainly because of our fear of failure. The more we know; the more afraid we become. As artists we need to take risks to venture into new exciting territory, to experiment and create something original, rich, and meaningful. There is no recipe for art, no “step by step” promise for success. Yes, we can learn various skills but to be truly creative we need to try something new and take risks. And in order to take risks we need to not be afraid (of failure). If we play too safe, there is little creativity, if we get too risky the project can fail. As an artist; taking risks is my job, on the other hand I do need to produce a “product”—there needs to be a show. A supportive team allows everyone to risk failure without actually failing.

What is the artistic home of the future?
I would like to entertain the idea of an artistic home that is not “product” driven. What would happen if we did not have to worry about an end result? What if experimentation and “risk taking” could be taken further? Personally I would love to create in a place that pushes the boundaries of what theater is supposed to be. The theater of the future for me is a place that examines the human condition and creates meaningful shows that are not products but “snapshots” of a specific point in the creative process.

Thoughts from the curator

Theatre artists from around the country reflect on their respective "artistic homes."

Artistic Home

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Steffi, as another member of the Pittsburgh Playhouse family I love the way you articulate what an artistic home should provide the artist: to be "challenged and supported...pushed and cradled...not in comfort or fear but in between..walking on the edge of the cliff." I'm so glad we have been able to "walk that cliff" together a number of times and look forward to future collaborations. You bring such a unique vision to the work, I can't imagine Pittsburgh theater without it.