Monday, September 11, 2006

Celebrating Celestine Sibley

(response to world premiere of Turned Funny, dramatization of Celestine Sibley's memoir, performed at Marietta Georgia's Theatre in the Square this month. Drama )

As columnist Celestine Sibley, actress Linda Stephens generates great energy and warmth. More than anything, her character loves words. Stephens savors the elegant descriptions of places and the transcriptions of odd Southern dialogue circa 1950. The story is that of the daughter of white trash who rises to become a well-known columnist at the Atlanta Constitution.

There's a built-in problem in a birth-to-death play. Eventually, as the character ages in act two, it's going to be one tearful farewell to dying friends after another. It's a drag, not nearly so emotional as the actors try to make it.

I loved a comment early in the play, one which must come straight from the columnist, that actors learn the art of loving and leaving. No relationship is so close and intense as that formed among actors in a play during the period of rehearsal. When the show ends, most of them never see each other again. So true.

Also enjoyed seeing Linda Stephens again, remembering her from roles in the mid-70s Harlequin Dinner Theatre, when she performed the song "Old Maid" in 110 IN THE SHADE and acted in the company with her then-husband Larry Shue, now primarily remembered for his script THE FOREIGNER. She was believable and charming in progress from 5 year old girl to nonagenarian.

Aside from a small blue grass band that provided interludes, the cast was just Stephens and one man who played her father, stepfather, boss, suitor(s), and other men, and a woman who played her mother, neighbor, teacher, buddy, and other women.

The play was unremarkable as a play; it did open me to looking into Sibley's own work that I'd overlooked when she was at her height and I was a teenager in Atlanta.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Ask Not What Arts Can Do for Our Children. . .

(draft of a yet-to-be-published foreword to a school publication focused on the arts in our curriculum. Some of this material is adapted from a short address I gave on the same subject in May 2006, archived here at the Word Sanctuary.)

For a minute, let’s put aside stats about art students’ high achievements on tests, and just look at what our children do in their arts classes. Then you’ll know what arts do for our children.

You’ll see that art isn’t about career skills for a handful of “creative” people, but practice for leaders in any field.

Our children start from scratch. What teaches self-confidence more than overcoming the fear of making the first sound, word, move, or mark?

Of course, they’re also learning that old adage about inspiration and perspiration, starting over again and again until it – whatever “it” is – arrives at what they imagined. Forget about grades: they know when it’s right. People outside the arts think this is some mysterious talent called creativity, but it’s only the perseverance to find what you want. Michelangelo said that sculpting a horse was easy: You just chip away everything in the marble that doesn’t look like a horse.

Our children practice seeing what other people miss. Drawing is always about “seeing what’s there, not what you think is there.” Acting involves searching a text for clues, and noticing even the lines that aren’t written – what the character thinks while another character speaks. The musician sees a row of notes, but looks for patterns that are clues to phrasing. Outside the arts, we call that analysis, and it sounds pretty dull. In arts class, seeing and finding are a source of excitement and energy.

Our children combine things in new ways. That’s what composition means (Latin, “putting together”) and why that word applies equally to making music, writing words, and designing any visual art. Of course, outside of the arts, we call it thinking to look for connections where no one else sees them. Nothing mysterious about genius: it can be practiced, and that’s what art classes teach every day.

Our children try other perspectives besides their own. Our young actors imagine how another must feel, and practice making that feeling visible to an audience. Our children write and draw from particular perspectives, attending to place, mood. Of course, they’re always aware of the perspective of the viewer, and wondering how to communicate to that person. If we call this practice empathy, we recognize that this piece of arts education is the quality often missing in managers and leaders who don’t measure up.

Our children learn to collaborate. Often they work in small groups, and other times a director or conductor defines the overall vision. Either way, our students must take responsibility for their own parts. They identify problems, brainstorm solutions, respond to changes, and revise the project in progress in a way that everyone can live with. That’s what people outside the arts call leadership, and in the arts, everyone does it.

Finally, our children grow to connect their other classes to themselves and to each other through art. A graduate of the class of 2006 told me how he found interest in academics when he saw possible connections to his ongoing projects. His remark reminded me how the arts did something similar for me. For example, reading a soldier’s poetry from No Man’s Land brought all the names and dates of World War I home to me. Singing Renaissance motets in chorus and viewing early American art helped me to get into the minds of people who had seemed impossibly remote. Hearing a teacher’s comment that poets reduce complex experience to simplest terms, I suddenly understood what I’d been doing in math and computer programming classes. If you’ve had a similar epiphany, thank a good arts program.

So, in the pages ahead, see how Walker students pursue the arts every day, making art from everyday material. As Arts Month director, I’m making that the theme for this year’s Pursuit of the Arts Month: Art every day, Everyday art: finding the extra in the ordinary.

Monday, September 04, 2006

This Old Verse: Ted Kooser's Poetry Manual

After reading The Poetry Home Repair Manual by poet laureate emeritus Ted Kooser.

When I've seen an episode of "This Old House" on TV, the wood shapes as easily as butter under the adzes and saws of the craftsmen, and the remodeled porch is complete in thirty minutes. Then I try for an hour to hang a mirror, and make a mess.

In the same way, easygoing Ted Kooser makes writing poetry seem simple, just a matter of developing an initial idea and making some choices along the way, using the tools available -- the title, the first impression, the sounds, the senses, the form on the page, the metaphors and similes.

Kooser's examples come mostly from poets working today. He uses some of his own poems, and shows us failed drafts, too. Almost every example earned my seal of approval, "Ah!" in the margin... often with a "Ha!" too. Kooser's own story, beating the sun up to write at his farm each morning before his commute to the insurance office in town, is as inspirational as the text.

But, as with "This Old House," when I tried to complete the one poem I've had in mind for a few years, I bogged down.

This doesn't take away from his book's value. Kooser gently but firmly decries the critics and professors whose self-worth is based on perpetuating the perception that "baffling" poems are better than ones that are "accessible" at first reading. (He chooses examples that are accessible at first reading, that also reward repeated readings.) He preaches and demonstrates how poems "freshen the world," as he illustrates early in the book with this poem, "Fire Burning in a Fifty-Five Gallon Drum" by Jared Carter:

Next time you'll notice them on your way to work
or when you drive by that place near the river where the stockyards used to stand, where everything

is gone now. They'll be leaning over the edge
of the barrel, getting it started. . .

Kooser takes that first line to describe all good poems: "Once we have read and been affected by a poem, our awareness of its subject -- in this instance a group of men huddled around a barrel -- may be forever heightened and made memorable (p. 7)."

Near the end of the book, Kooser enlarges this idea still more to hint at a metaphysical or even religious function for poems. He admits that, if he lives another twenty years, he may even come to believe in a God who cares about what he does. Until then, though, he feels more and more certain that all things are connected, and poems -- especially through metaphor -- help us to see that.

He assures us that we won't make a living writing poems. At the end, though, he points out that we work on a poem hoping that this one will be memorable and touching and insightful; and out there are readers hoping to find just such a poem. Put it that way, the avocation of writing poems seems a hopeful one.