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A collection of  ideas, lessons, and reflections on art, creativity, and life

Fake it 'til you make it

I developed a mind-reading show called HypnoTricks when I was eighteen years old. Many of the routines had never been practiced before. I was nervous. There was a point in the show where I had planned a hypnosis routine. I had been reading up about hypnosis and thought I could probably do it right if I had enough confidence. I was banking on confidence alone. So, there I was in front of the audience and the hypnosis routine was up next. I was scared. I had an idea to just move on to the next routine and skip the hypnosis all together. I glanced over at the lighting technician and remembered something. There are several important light cues and technical transitions during the hypnosis routine. If I skipped this huge part of the act, then I would completely mess up the lighting guy. So, I plowed forward, imagining I had done this a hundred times before. I began the routine with nothing but confidence. I called up two ladies from the audience to join me on stage and have a seat on the pre-set chairs. I began the induction, calling for their heads to become heavier and for their bodies to slowly hunch over into their laps. And with little effort, it started to work! They began to fall asleep in front of me and the audience! To my amazement the whole routine was working flawlessly. I had never practiced anything like this and it was working successfully on my first try! On the outside, I’m keeping my cool. On the inside, I’m thinking, “Holy shit, it’s actually working!”. Granted, I can credit my minimal research, but I certainly put confidence at the forefront of this success. From that project, I took away the value of confidence. I discovered that sometimes confidence will make things happen just the way you want them to. I faked being a hypnotist and then actually became one (or at least no different from a real one in the audience’s eyes).

Don’t ignore the signs and omens

We try to make things happen. We want things to go our way. However, sometimes it is wiser not to force them. True, there are occasions where one must be assertive to fulfill a goal. We must show determination to achieve that which seems un-achievable. But I find it is often the case that signs and omens will make themselves known to you, informing what is right. Something may tell you "this isn’t going to work for you". Not everyone is cut out for everything. More specifically, we are not all equipped with the necessary faculties to accomplish our very specific dreams. For some cases, it doesn't matter how much determination or 'positive thinking' is utilized, many may still find themselves at square one. I heard it said that the saddest thing in the world is wasted talent. In my estimation, even sadder is to see a friend strive desperately for a dream they are unequivocally ill-suited for. The signs that seem negative or pessimistic are not necessarily obstacles for you to be resilient against. They are often the whispers from the world suggesting your efforts are more valuable in another sector. I think, probably, the ability to recognize this makes an artist all the wiser.

The Hero's Journey has all the answers

In high school English class, I remember discussing the Joseph Cambell’s “Hero’s Journey” at length. This mythological meta-narrative was of little interest to me as a fourteen year old. But in recent years, I have discovered how remarkable it truly is, not just for storytellers and people who enjoy film and television, but for the average human being. The Hero’s Journey has been observed in mythologies of widely diverse cultures. Occidental mythology is ripe with different heroes whose journeys follow very similar paths. Psychologist Carl Jung also discovered its existence within dream structures and can be analyzed through what he calls the “Process of Individuation”. It seems to me that what this tells us is that the Hero’s Journey actually stands as a reliable diagram for how to approach and access meaning in life. Not happiness, meaning. I am confident that meaning is what humans desire more than happiness. Utilizing the Hero’s Journey as a directional guide on how to approach difficult situations can prove very useful. 

 

I was once interested in a job as a substitute teacher. I was invited by a friend (a teacher) to apply to the job and my first response was to refuse the “call to adventure”. I was not confident that I would be good at it. I reasoned that I had no business working in a school without a background in education. I can remember breaking down my options. First option: I refuse the call to adventure and continue with the small income I already have, willingly dismissing the possibility that I could be very good at teaching - dismissing my potential and learning nothing. Result = zero progress as a person. Second option: I call the administration, despite my crippling nerves, and set-up an interview, embracing uncertain outcomes. Result = pride, knowledge earned, new perspectives. After breaking down my options, the former decision was clearly the most necessary. So I pushed myself through the threshold and passed many obstacles on the way. I discovered by the end of the year that I was the most valued substitute in the whole school system. I was the substitute that all the teachers were requesting. I also learned that I most enjoyed working in the primary schools, something I never would have predicted. My positive impact on the children and valued presence at the schools made going to the job meaningful. It was incredibly rewarding despite the challenges. Each step of the way followed the Hero’s Journey model which is a time-tested guide on how to approach your actions and what to expect from them.

You are learning

In my adolescence, I made a serious study of acting. The acting classes required that we develop a character into the body through every gesture and movement. I had compiled hundreds of notes and papers and books to catalog all the work I had done on these characters. Over the years as I separated from acting and character work, I have held onto these notes and books tightly. I felt as though if I took on another role, I would need to re-learn all the things that I used to study. I thought that since I had been apart from the material, I must have lost it all and have now become a blank slate again. I recently moved apartments and found myself looking through all this material - directors notes, tips to self, gesture and movement breakdowns, acting books, and beyond. What I came to discover was that all the things I was holding on to were things that already became a part of me when I dedicated myself to them years ago. All that time studying the craft of acting was time for the techniques and approaches to become fused in my bones as a performer. Sometimes, it feels like you have to constantly be studying in order to feel like you are learning. But it is a relief to discover that the brain is collecting, analyzing, and processing without any effort from your conscious. Remind yourself that you are learning even when it feels like you are not.

Create. Don't re-create.

I used to be completely obsessed with Halloween. As a twelve year old, I couldn’t wait for October when my mother would let me have total liberty in decorating the front of the house for the holiday. There was one year from my memory that had been the greatest yard design up to that point. I tried every year to recreate that set-up. I could never get it to be as good as that one particular year. Eventually, I tried something new. I came up with my own cemetery design that would be far different from that of years passed. To excellent surprise, the result was so much more rewarding. All this time I had been trying to re-create something that was good at one point, but not meant to be any longer. I had been approaching the project from the wrong direction. I had not been creating, but re-creating. My pride in the new design showed me that I had finally approached it in the right way. The new design was honest and not superficial. 

 

I learned this lesson again while developing a new play. I wanted to re-create a scene from another play and insert it into my own play. I had liked the way that scene felt when I experienced it and I wanted to deliver the same feelings for my own audience. So I basically stole the whole scene, including the music, and plopped it into my play. The result was a clumsy, contrived, out-of-place sequence that spoiled much of what the play had going for it. My advice to artists is to let things inspire you while being wary of the negative effects of re-creation.

Don't be too picky

Writing a play is difficult. It takes a long time to accomplish. In the case of Second Sight, it took about five years. If I had learned not to be picky at the beginning of the process, I probably could have finished two years sooner. I remember the moment of discovery. I was writing in my little apartment in Avon, Connecticut and I was spending all this time outlining and character planning. I was so twisted up and unsure of how the story was going to pan out. I wanted everything in the story to be just right. I was being very picky. It occurred to me at that moment, as I was imagining all the ways the story could unfold, that perhaps my finished product need not be perfect. I suddenly got this image of stars in outer space. Each star was every possible version of the play. Like parallel universes, there may be very similar versions to what I’m writing and also very different versions. Could I be vulnerable enough to pluck only one of those stars and allow the others to fade away? This revaluation of the play’s potential released a huge weight from my shoulders. Suddenly, I did not have to be so picky to put the best version of the play on paper. But rather I could allow myself to let go of perfection and offer one version. I say to myself, “This is one version of what Second Sight could be, and that is enough.” To have re-framed my thinking as such was the first sign that I was starting to near completion. I see my peers working on projects that never come to an end because there is such a desire to make the art perfect. I think, probably, that the drive for perfection shows superficiality in an artist more than integrity.

"Actor and Activist"

Actors are being held at too high esteem, and because of that, I am skeptical of all these "Activists." I can’t help but see a clue that the activism we are seeing in contemporary politics is rooted in narcissism – not altruism. (Don't kill me!) Let me just break down my goofy little argument... In my adolescence and college years, I called myself an actor. Looking back at myself as an eight year old in the community theater, it is undeniable that my desire for attention was what really lured me in. I was the youngest child out of four. Asthmatic. Feeble. Agile, yet un-athletic. I liked the attention! What can I say? But my relationship with acting matured. I began to engage with it as a disciplined art form that was beyond me and my superficial desires. Any traces of vanity became shadowed by my passion for creating art with integrity. But undeniably a trace of it must remain today. I think it is probably true that most contemporary artists have a self-obsessed complex. Such a complex is at the root of their behavior in social forums. I am seeing that actors, and visual artists, have begun using their art to persuade. They are becoming political. (Sigh). It is so annoying. I see many of them creating websites for their personal branding and career development, usually with the terms “Actor and Activist” on the front page. 

I once spoke with an opera director who explained his alternative production of Bizet’s opera Carmen. He and the creative team changed the ending of Carmen so as to not let the heroine die in the end of the story. They were concerned about letting such a symbol of feminine strength die at the end of the Opera. His good intentions were obvious, but it seems to me this rebellious approach to a theater piece is a misguided one. I hate to imagine if Romeo and Juliet were rewritten so that the lovers live through the end of the story. It would destroy all that was at stake through the rising action. Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, my college production featured a lesbian version of the starcrossed lovers. The justification? “Love is love is love is love.” Ok, sure! I suppose as a fun theatrical experiment, this alteration was worth taking a stab at (pun intended). It certainly heightened the secrecy of the relationship and gave an extra layer to Juliet’s famous line, “Wherefore art thou Romeo”. But, I have to ask myself, would Shakespeare have written it differently if he intended the couple to be two women? Are we willing to admit that the characteristics of heterosexual and homosexual courtship are unalike; enough at least for its subtleties to have not been missed by a poet? The integrity of these stories is not ours to meddle with. Doing so raises eye-brows, but for the wrong reasons. It is a lazy way to be controversial.

 

We cannot normalize the tinkering of 100+ year old stories under the moral standards of 21st century audiences. It is unfortunate that stories can be so full of misogyny and racism. However, we must be content to preserve them as such. If the nastiest elements of human interaction such as sexism, misogyny, and racism, are going to inevitably poke their way into our social structure, I wonder if the realm of art (i.e. theatre, comedy, etc) is where they can be safely housed – in a place where we can see the foulness of ourselves and laugh. Maybe this is exactly why we need art. It seems to me that the optimal utility of art is to reflect the world as it is – in all its beauty and cruelty. A more appropriate and creative response to the contemporary socio-political standards is for the artist to create new works that end as tastefully as he sees fit. But he must take care not to let his work become propaganda. An artist must reflect the world, he dare not try to persuade it. 

Actors and theater-makers remain outspoken at the forefront of politically progressive thinking. This is not where they belong. Indeed, it is the artists who stretch our cultures into the brilliance of the future reaching beyond the confines of conservatism. But, I wonder if that progression need not be intentional. The artist must accept that art is a metaphysical substance that does not belong to him. It is not born by his genius. Rather, it filters through him. His Unconscious acts as a vessel for Truth to be filtered through. The artist should be unaware of its meaning. If spoiled by the artist's ego, the art itself can become political and narcissistic. It is spoiled by his awareness of what the art means and what his use is for it. Only by observing the global repertoire of art, from sculpture and graffiti to poetry and song, can we sum up "Truth" down to its gist. That gist is quite undefinable but might be something like "pure beauty un-corrupted by the conscious mind; from God". So futile are these slimy insertions of political ideology onto the artwork in the Western canon. Most unsettling is that artists (actors in particular) are taken so seriously.

 

It is as if Hollywood became what the Promised Land (Zion/Heaven) once was. A mythological image/idea. The role that the Promised Land fulfilled in our collective unconscious before the 20th century is the same role that Hollywood fulfills today, with its Oscar-winning saints and it’s ruby red River Jordan. In college, I took an identity course where we watched a documentary on transgenderism. What I remember so clearly was that 80% of the “specialists” being interviewed during the documentary were A-List actors and performers. With a few psychologists and sociologists scattered in the mix. I couldn’t help but wonder what in the world Tom Hanks was doing in a “scientific” documentary? I’m concerned we have unconsciously categorized actors as deities. We seem comfortable being persuaded by Tom Hanks. Is it because he gained our trust when he saved Andy’s toys? And kept us safe on the polar express? And survived for years on a deserted island? Actors have become cultural heroes and are taken far too seriously. They used to belong to the world of commedia dell'arte; of the comedian, the jester, the entertainer, the puppeteer. They existed in the world of brash, naughty, offensive, phallus slinging, melodramatic buffoons who relish in the art of stereotype. In antiquity, actors were the only ones permitted to rudely criticize the powerful. Today, I think actors are most useful in society when reflecting the human race in all its nastiness, showing us what we are really like. When the time comes that good people are being politically persuaded by actors, it will soon be time to send in the clowns. Have we become so naive as to be persuaded by fools? If it is fools we hold sacred, then fools we shall ever be!

You have one name. Don't f*ck with it!

In college, I used to rock climb in a local gym with a friend. One day, at the end of our session, I showed him the climbing gear that I had rented: a small metallic ATC device. I mimed slipping it in my backpack, suggesting how easy it would be to steal it. His eyes showed me his disapproval and I recognized his concern. “This place has so much money and they will never miss it,” I reasoned. "This gear means more to me than it does to the gym".  In that regard, my arguments were probably true, but the stakes were higher for me than I presumed. There was a bigger issue that I was not considering. The best reason not to steal the gear was the very fact that my friend was standing right beside me, observing my naughty consideration. I was risking negative consequences within our friendship.

 

When I showed him my desire to steal something, I communicated my willingness to be untrustworthy. He informed me that he would not stop me from stealing the gear, but warned that if I did, he would have to consider locking his bedroom door when I come over to hang out. I assured him, “I would never steal from a friend! That’s different!” “Maybe so", he continued. "But now I know that you are willing to steal something that does not belong to you. And that is enough to make me suspicious of your honesty.” I stood for a moment, dropped my head and shoulders, dragged my feet over to the counter and returned the borrowed gear. Comme un sage. “I hope you’re happy,” I said with a smile. He was glad I chose not to steal the gear. He wanted to trust me.

 

We must be so careful with our reputations as trustworthy people. It is to our advantage that we have the capacity to give others the benefit of the doubt. We are largely willing to assume others are trustworthy – until we have reason to believe they are not. To lie, steal, or show dishonesty of any kind will always deliver less goodness upon us than the alternatives. We must be conscious of how our actions represent our character. Good reputation is fragile. Once it is bruised, it can never be fully restored. You can only ever be the one person that you are. You have but one name. Ensure that it is looked well upon by the people you admire. 

Create constantly

Just create things. When we create and create and create, our art will begin to define us. It's my suspicion that we discover who we are as artists upon retroactive observation of a large body of work. The artist's voice reveals itself through his art. I noticed this to be true through the case of a contemporary visual artist. In 2008, Mike Winkelmann began producing a drawing every day with no particular goal in mind. His daily output continued steadily for 14 years. The drawings became predominantly digital and grew enormous interest on social media. In 2022, his work was auctioned as an NFT for $69 million dollars. Over 14 years, he created artwork only for the sake of output. Consequentially, his work began to define him. He discovered who he was as an artist. Such a regiment can greatly benefit the artist whose concern is to discover the purpose of his soul. An artist must not be concerned with activism or persuasion. He must not ask himself what it is he wants to say. His only goal must be to permit his soul to speak in a language unfamiliar to him. Upon looking back at a large body of work, the world will read what his soul had to say.

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