Sometimes It’s Just a Cigar

I’ve been going to a climbing gym a lot lately, and loving it. For whatever reason climbing is the only athletic pursuit that I’ve ever both thoroughly enjoyed and had the slightest bit of natural ability to do. There are so many appealing things about it– collaborative problem solving, reliance on your partners, occasional breaks in the exertion that you can spend sitting on comfy gym mats– and it seems to lend itself to all sorts of sweeping metaphorical interpretations. Which, come on. Aren’t those the best?

So it was with great excitement that I clicked on Rich Dionne’s examination of climbing and theatre today, after seeing the headline on ArtsJournal. “What resplendent joy!” I thought to myself. “Another one of my theatrical fellows has decided to take a traipse about the allusionary maypole! What a smashing bit of symbolic frippery this bit of reading shall be!” I put on my Abstract Thinking Cap, opened the page with a flourish and prepared to draw all sorts of connections from one thing I love to another.

What I got was a bit different.

My first realization? I’ve been belaying for years–just not in harness, not with a belay device, and not–obviously–for people. But as I was doing it, I found myself falling into some familiar body-memory motions. The physicality was not terribly different from hoisting or guiding scenery with a bull rope, especially when you holding it in place for a rigger: the rope often goes under your foot, non-dominant hand on the live end of the rope, and dominant on the dead end. Your foot becomes–in some ways–like a belay device, helping to brake the load.

What’s that you say? There are things about theatre that actually exist in a physical space, and are dictated to practical and even mathematical concerns?! Pish, posh, osh kosh b’gosh! My whimsical being was rocked to its core. I had to break out the smelling salts just to make it to the end.

It all operates as a nice reminder, though, of the many many many disciplines and experiences that go into putting on a show. We have one of the most multifaceted disciplines around, and the fact that creating the art encourages/requires working with folks who rattle off load-bearing measurements in casual (and blogified) conversation is its own kind of magic.

One of my favorite largely inconsequential trivias about being a playwright is the name itself: we’re not writers. We’re wrights. We build things; we construct them; we practice an artisanal craft. And the best part of it all? Somebody else is there to do the math for us.

When There Are No Solutions

The inestimable Shane, a friend and video game designer, has a wonderful and ruminative post up on his blog that shares some thoughts from his perspective on video games, violence and media responsibility. Like any discussion after the Sandy Hook massacre (or any event of its type, no matter the size or scope), there are no easy answers, but there are some really fascinating and well-phrased questions. The whole thing is very much worth a read, but if you’re a fan of excerpted quotes and then random, disjointed thoughts, read his post, then come back here and read on. A quick quote from Shane to start:

I don’t know what responsiblity we have as game developers. I have a responsibility to my leads to produce compelling work. I have a responsibility to my producer to do it on time. I have a responsibility to the other departments to make their stuff look good. Is it also my responsibility to try and improve the collective psyche of my culture? Is it wild hubris to even think that’s possible?

Some musings:

We talk about theatre as an immersive art form, but for a truly even balance of audience-as-observer and audience-as-creator, you can’t beat a well-crafted video game. Gamed narratives place their audiences in a position where they are simultaneously viewing and also manipulating the action. There has to be a story, or it’s not compelling, but there also has to be input, control, and choice. I think theatre is closer to that end of the spectrum than television or movies; audiences are in the room, after all, so there’s an implied culpability or involvement in what’s happening, but it very rarely carries over into an actual participatory event. But we’ll never be able to quite touch the blend of personal narrative, agency and adrenaline that comes from a good video game experience.

Does that mean that video game designers shoulder more societal responsibility than theatre artists? I don’t think so. This is because I think both theatre and video games (and, hell, any art form), operate on a few different levels. The most primal is a mechanical one: any piece of art is a puzzle to be solved.  The puzzles in both theatre and video games can be seen as a sequence of mechanical inputs and outputs: this factor reacts this way to this stimulus. This keycard opens this door to this level. This character has this motivation to behave this way towards her father.

Beyond that mechanical level is the atmospheric one: the skin that we put over the framework. Who the people involved are. How they interact. Whether they’re popping bubbles to solve problems, or shooting people in the face. It’s the genres, the tropes, the angles of attack. All of the shorthand by which we group one type of puzzles into an area separate from other types.

On a basic level, game designers and playwrights and other artists are really just striving to build the best puzzle possible. We want the rules to make sense. We want the pieces to fit together. We want the solution to be clear, but only after the work has been done. In this way, it doesn’t really matter what skin we put on to the frameworks we build. A Fatality in Mortal Kombat yields the same result as a Friendship:  you still win the fight.

But, of course, we also have to engage with our work on that next level up, the narrative one, and think about how we present the puzzles that we make. But I think this is a personal decision more than a societal one (and I’m under the impression that Shane is getting at the same point). We all decide where we fall on the line. I know of playwrights who refuse to include on-stage violence against women in their plays, because they don’t want to perpetuate something that they feel is already over-represented. I also know people who write incredibly compelling plays with incredibly violent acts committed against women. The former doesn’t necessarily invalidate the latter; the important thing is that thought is put into both approaches. We have to be the driving force in dressing our puzzles up the best way possible, and make sure that we’re aware of the questions that they raise as much as of the answers they provide.

But as I said: this is best done on a personal level, not a societal level. Because we as artists cannot know, with a hundred percent certainty, how our audience will engage with our work on either level. Especially not when hypotheticals or generalizations are brought into play. That ratio of creater-to-observer that I mentioned up above, in video games? That means that, in a complex narrative game, literally every player will have a different than every other player, ever. And often, the mechanical level can overwhelm the atmospheric level. The experience of the pieces fitting together, of that input-output relationship, if it is done correctly, can be compelling enough that audiences engage only with it, and not with the particular narrative trappings that are dressing it up. And if they’re just interacting with the mechanics, they can have a fully immersed and attentive experience without assimilating the messages, beneficial or problematic, of the atmospheric layer. This is a blessing and a curse, depending on whether you want your audience to take something from their experience or simply ride a roller coaster to completion. Someone can be addicted to a first-person shooter without also being addicted to shooting and violence. (I know this for a fact: I’ve been just as addicted to puzzle games as shooters in the past. At a certain point any narrative can simply become a Skinner box of cause-and-effect, devoid of meaning. And then your whole weekend is gone and you haven’t done any of the work you were supposed to do.)

What Shane points to as one of the problems is that, currently, the “shoot everybody kill everybody” atmospheric layer is the most prevalent skin put on to video game mechanics. So where does all this rambling leave the question of personal responsibility? Again: I have no idea. I don’t even know if I’ve voiced a coherent thought in all of this. But I think, at the heart of things, that the artist’s responsibility, even within a system that has some problematic tendencies, is simply to think about both layers of what they’re building: the mechanics and the atmosphere, and to encourage others to do the same through dialogue. The more we put thought into it, the more we aim to build both a better mousetrap, and also a more meaningful (and potentially non-lethal) one.

Cue Emotional Music

A nifty short documentary about long documentarian Ken Burns, talking about stories and craft. A few random thoughts to lead off:

  • Ken Burns’ hair, man. Wow. Is it still salt & pepper if your hair is entirely pepper and your beard is entirely salt?
  • Ken Burns is smart.
  • I love the “1+1=3” idea, because it begins sounding very deep, and then you have that moment where you go “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense!” and then he immediately follows up by, in fact, making it make sense. Stories are a place where the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. It’s a very nicely done metaphor, and paced in a way that lets it hits home nicely. Which leads me to the bigger musing:

I’m of two minds as to whether asking a “master” storyteller (or someone who identifies as a storyteller in general) about what makes a good story is something that is really the best approach. On the one hand, we get the 1+1=3 thing, which I like, but on the other hand we also get the story about his mother being sick his whole childhood and how maybe him doing historical documentaries about dead people is all an attempt to bring her back to life. Which, don’t get me wrong. That is incredibly effecting and when he brings it all back to storytelling at the end and the emotional music swells and everything, I honestly got a little choked up. But I also think that Ken Burns is a man who hears emotional music swelling at every moment of his life. He is intimately familiar with the structure of an emotional-music swell, and the structure of storytelling in general, and because of that he has structured his story about storytelling into just that: a story. It’s got pacing, it’s got beats, it’s got just the right moments for a slow-zoom-in-on-a-picture kind effect overlay. Those rhythms are ingrained in who he is and how he talks, and then, for added abstraction, it’s edited and compiled by people who have very obviously studied his work intently.

Is that helpful for learning about story? I’m not sure. It’s effective, of course, but it also runs the same risk that a lot of Ken Burns’ stuff can run: inflating every single fact or thought or idea to the nth degree, until it’s all just so significant and deep and moving but really might not mean as much as we want it to. The best illustration, of course, being the storied history of Black Nasa:

I think this is one of the things that makes it so difficult for writers and storytellers to talk about craft. We think about structure and flow and meaning a lot, to an obsessive degree, and so even when we try to explain it we’re looking for the epiphany moment, or the emotional sting, or the big culmination where All Is Revealed and everyone listening feels that something has been  illuminated. But is that really teaching? Or is it just recycling a bunch of the same ideas in new packages, so that everyone can tell us how smart we are? (By the way: if you like this post, don’t forget to leave a comment below!)

Of course, there’s no way around this for anyone: we all tell stories, all the time, whether we mean to or not. I just think that Ken Burns is particularly better at it than most people, to the degree where I find it hard to trust him sometimes, even when I agree with him. Maybe it’s about making sure we stay skeptical as audience members, and demand the truth behind the emotional music. And maybe it’s also about making sure that we, as storytellers, don’t go so far up our own storyholes that we lose the ability to just come right out and state our beliefs as simply and un-gilded as possible.

Word Count on this post: 646 (and two videos!). I’ve obviously got a bit of work to do on that last one.

Elephants Are Bluesmen Too

So posting’s been a bit light on this end; the combination of SpeakEasy tech week and auditions scheduling, finishing a first draft of a new play that I’m totally stoked about, a trip to Chicago for Sideshow’s gala, and jury duty have all conspired to make things a bit crazypants. But, to tide you over until I can find the time to continue tenuously connecting things to theatrical themes, here’s a lesson in how awesome it probably is to be a zookeeper:

Seriously, folks. I chose the wrong profession.

Mondays Abroad: Happy UNbirthday, Ant Shakespeare

Today’s Sideshow Blerg post, wherein the Harvard Review posts a really fascinating article about the evolution of art, and I get completely and utterly fixated by one particular sentence in the course of dumbing it down.