The Things We Do for Art

So, this book comes out today, in case you hadn’t heard. However, due to both the wonderful fact that I’ve got lots of projects right now, and the less wonderful fact that I have historically terrible self-control, I can’t allow myself to purchase the book until August. Because the second I do, man. It’s all over.

So in the meantime, I get to try to avoid the rampant spoilers that are already being posted upon the internet. Which is fine. I mean, it’s not like Martin is known for sudden and dramatic deaths, or anything.

Anyway, this is really all just an excuse to post this discussion I had this morning, with a friend who doesn’t have the same scheduling issues as I.

Tom: i have read the first chapter

me: I was afraid to ask.
me: They’re all dead, aren’t they.
Tom: oh most definitely
me: I knew it.
Tom: they were all in the same car
Tom: and tyrion was driving drunk
Tom: and right as they were about to hit a tree
Tom: their planet plunged into the sun
So there you have it, folks. I just saved you 1,000 pages.

The Matter of Time

Well, this is one the most supremely fascinating things I’ve read all year. It is also, in a very literal and non-hyperbolic sense, awe-inspiring. It inspires awe.

Long story short: there is a clock being built, inside of a mountain, that will tick for 10,000 years. But you should go read the whole thing, believe me. There’s even a robot with a chainsaw arm, just to spice things up in the middle.

“Over the lifetime of this clock, the United States won’t exist,” Bezos tells me. “Whole civilizations will rise and fall. New systems of government will be invented. You can’t imagine the world — no one can — that we’re trying to get this clock to pass through.”

I think that, in theatre, we have a very schizophrenic relationship with the immediate. We want to make things that last, obviously; we want to create experiences that resonate, that live on when they’re done, that fundamentally become a part of people’s lives. If we’re playwrights, we want more than one production, a lot of the time; we mostly want to pen words that will carry down and be found relevant through time, and space. We want to last.

Of course, we can’t. Our works can’t either. Certainly not on the scale that the makers of this clock are talking about. Theatre is about immediacy. It’s about the moment; it’s about a shared communal experience of story and catharsis and fleeting togetherness that is so great exactly because it can’t be repeated. It’s what we all love about it, but it guarantees that anyone writing with “posterity” in mind is going to fail, more often than not.

At its best, a great show can be a pebble in someone’s shoe for the rest of their lives: quietly niggling, never quite settling, it can echo in their actions and can even change their behaviors, but it can’t stand as a monument unto the ages. It just doesn’t have that kind of power, or intent, behind it. It’s not one of the tools.

So on first glance, after reading an article like that, it seems a little silly to me that we’re running around on painted, temporary sets speaking words few will ever hear while out in the desert of Texas these clockmakers are building an apparatus that will quite possibly last longer than our entire species. It’s a humbling realization, and it’s even a little shaming, because how do you measure up against ten millenia? What kind of ambition can we have in the face of that sort of time, if we’re just trying to put together a show for next season?

But that’s the beauty of the clock: it’s not about the clock. It’s about the theatrics of the clock. And, really, the way that the clock is employed has a whole lot in common with what we do as theatre artists. (Minus the robo-chainsaw. For now.) Building this clock isn’t about the people/beings who may/may not find it 10,000 years from now. It’s entirely about us, in this moment, and the attempt to make an impact on the way that we live our lives. For one thing: it’s gigantic. It’s inside of a mountain. It’s shiny and pretty and there’s a big spiral staircase you take to walk all the way up it. It’s grand and immense and fantastic, and designed specifically to take your breath away. It’s theatrical in the way a cathedral is theatrical. And then, there’s this passage from the article:

To conserve energy, and to encourage visitor participation, [the clock] won’t actually display the current time on its face most of the time. Instead, the face will show the time and date (and the corresponding position of the stars and planets) of the last person’s visit to the clock, whether that was yesterday or 300 years ago. If you want to view the current time, you’ll need to turn a wheel near the clock face, which advances the clock’s dials, moving through time until it automatically clicks to a stop at the present moment:


The point of the clock isn’t to make something that lasts 10,000 years. It’s to make us, right now, think about what 10,000 years means, and to help us realize that as vast as that length of time is, we’re a part of it. We’re in the continuum. And we’re connected to everyone else in the stream, and we can see that by simply turning a wheel and leaving our mark for the next participant. We can take a hike through the desert, walk up a staircase, marvel at something that’s going to last exponentially longer than us, and we can then directly participate in its existence, and put our own little timestamp on its face.

Then we can go back outside, and walk back to our cars, and drive home to our relatively short lives. But if we visit the clock, then we’ll have one more pebble in our shoe, slightly changing our gait. We’ll have a big, quiet ticking in the back of our minds, reminding us that we have a place in the cosmos.

Sounds like a pretty awesome piece of theatre, I’d say.

Building vs. Excavation

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that one of the Pixar guys has great thoughts on storytelling:

Yeah, I looked at things like “Apocaplyto” and “Rome” and even things like “Shogun” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” things that as a viewer I could accept as having a level of historical research. They give me a sense of what it would be like in that land and in that age. So then you ask, “Well, what if we just did our Martian research really, really well and treated it as a period film.”

Having created universes from scratch before, that can consume all of your time and the character/plot child gets neglected. This allowed us not to sweat all that stuff and go straight to character.

A lot of emphasis, especially in genre fiction, gets put on world-building as a be-all-end-all kind of thing. There’s something magisterial about the image of the Great Author, alone in his room, conjuring up existences and laying them out for his readers to see. The semantics of that idea are a little off, though, and Stanton pretty much nails why for me: what impresses us about storytelling isn’t world building, it’s world revealing.

You can have the most rich, detailed, consistent reality ever built in your mind’s eye, but that doesn’t mean you have a story. What it means is that you have a foundation, a backdrop, and a starting point. The hard part is channeling that information through a lens that people actually want to pay attention to. Think of it in Star Wars terms. (Most of life’s issues can be solved by thinking of them in Star Wars terms.) George Lucas made three movies that expertly hinted at a meaningful, established and important cultural mythology, and they were great. Then he made another three movies whose express purpose was to explain that mythology, and before you could say “midichlorians” everybody lost interest. Baby Anakin didn’t help, either.

World building is tricky, because as a creator you can let it consume you. There’s always more to do, after all, and you love the things you come up with and the clever solutions you find. But you can spend so much time tinkering with the physics that you forget the interactions. Before you know it you just have a bunch of people on stage giving dissertations to each other, and then you wonder why nobody in the audience is as intrigued as you are. Nobody cares about a character’s history unless that history has a direct impact on what they’re doing right that second. Even Tolkein’s publishers wouldn’t publish the Silmarillion until a) he’d sucked everyone in with adorable hobbitses and b) he was dead.

I love A Princess of Mars and I love Andrew Stanton. What I love even more is the fact that Andrew Stanton, who also loves A Princess of Mars, was willing to take the world Burroughs made as a given, and spend all his time focusing on the actual story instead of sweating the small stuff. It gives me lots of hope that this will be a great adaptation, because it’s being approached in just the right way, by what seems to be just the right guy for the job. (Plus: purty pictures!)

May 21st. Book It. Done.

Or so it would seem…oh boy.

Haubert says the Bible contains coded “proofs” that reveal the timing. For example, he says, from the time of Noah’s flood to May 21, 2011, is exactly 7,000 years. Revelations like this have changed his life.

“I no longer think about 401(k)s and retirement,” he says. “I’m not stressed about losing my job, which a lot of other people are in this economy. I’m just a lot less stressed, and in a way I’m more carefree.”

He’s tried to warn his friends and family. They think he’s crazy. And that saddens him.

“Oh, it’s very hard,” he says. “I worry about friends and family and loved ones. But I guess more recently, I’m just really looking forward to it.”

I’ve always wondered what happens the day after something like this, when there’s a “deadline” for everything changing. What do you talk about over breakfast? Do you even try to leave the house? Do you just figure you sinned too much?

At the very least, there’s probably quite a bit of canned food to get through.

A Robotic Pricing Arms Race

Over fruit flies, of all things:

Amazingly, when I reloaded the page the next day, both priced had gone UP! Each was now nearly $2.8 million. And whereas previously the prices were $400,000 apart, they were now within $5,000 of each other. Now I was intrigued, and I started to follow the page incessantly. By the end of the day the higher priced copy had gone up again. This time to $3,536,675.57. And now a pattern was emerging.

As far as “computers run amok” stories go, this one is pretty purely enjoyable. I can’t see any weird ethical quandries about pricing bots on Amazon, since they essentially just let the natural bartering of the used-books marketplace happen on a larger scale, and in the end we get a cheaper book.

But the completely unchecked lack of proportion is a bit worrying in the long-term; one hopes that we’ll find a more reliable “Don’t be crazy” algorithm before we start applying these kinds of methods to other determinations, like health care or, oh, missile launches. It’s reassuring to know that we humans aren’t quite obsolete yet, even though we might be lazy enough to trust our machines more than we should.