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Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Robert Lawson publishes article in the Austrian magazine Freigeist

Sept 3, 2010

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On Process – Robert Lawson

Over the last couple decades, choreographer Kei Takei has created a series of pieces all entitled “Light” -- parts #1, #2 &c.  The pieces are quite distinct, but they share the same title because - as she has stated - most artists have one thing to say, and approach the same essence over and over again from a hundred directions in the course of their life’s work. 

I have to admit, I think she’s right, though the common thread of one’s own work is frequently apparent only in hindsight - usually when someone observes it for us - and seldom is it a driving force in the creation of work, but rather a larger frame that reveals itself over time.  The phenomenon of a common thematic thread is even more curious when I think about the wide variety of entry points I have utilized when making work : over the last 20 years or so, I have made dozens of new pieces for theater, some for video or film, and a few art installations - each one of which has been sparked by a very different inspiration : a newspaper article, or a song, a book, an image, a phrase in an overheard conversation…  Sometimes there is a political imperative - like the disasters of the Bush presidency - but more often, the spark is some kind of human imperative.  But regardless of the work, there is indeed a common thread that unites it all - in my case, I believe it is some kind of Loss : my variation on Kei Takei’s unconscious lens that causes all paths to lead to a common road.

The reason why my own meta-universe is informed by the element of loss is hard to pin down.  Certainly at the heart of all art sits, or should sit, some huge question, and loss is certainly one of the Big Human Concerns.  Curiously enough, at this moment I’m engaged in a new theater work that seems to be a kind of meta-meta investigation into the very question of the question of what it means to lose something, some part of oneself.  Talk about things turning in on themselves - it’s quite a rabbit hole.  I suppose making art is a form of public psychoanalysis - and maybe the truth is, if you are at last able to nail down the whys and wherefores of your “personal lens”, perhaps the work is at an end.  I’m hoping never to understand myself that clearly.

Luckily, these meta-themes are self-revealing, and so I find myself more compelled by the question of process : the ‘How’ of the work I am making, the process of finding raw ideas and shaping them into a finished piece of work.  As director Robert Wilson has said : “People frequently ask me what my work means.  I tell them I don’t know, but I can tell them how I make a work.”  Frankly, I think this is a bit fatuous – I suspect that Wilson does know to a fair degree what his work means.  But the point is well taken : the more work I make, the more the process of making that work can be quantified into a kind of general system I can put in front of myself to ground the slippery process of making work.

For me, this “system” of process is both complex and strangely simple.  For starters, it’s important to remember that when one is purely focused on product, all ideas are disastrously vetted at the outset : does an idea have a likelihood of paying off?  Does it bear any resemblance to other tried and true ideas?  Is it practical?  Will the budget enable me to afford to realize a particular idea, image, design?  This, I have found, is not uncommon in the American film world, and projects frequently suffer as a result -- for if these restrictions are the guardians through which all ideas must pass before they are allowed to enter the realm of possibility, then the result will likely be recognizable, indistinct & unpersonalized, possibly successful if judged against known criteria, but - I believe - invariably flat. 

I envision the diagram of this process shaped like a Martini glass.  At first, I always imagined a funnel, but it’s a far less compelling notion, visually : the Martini glass being transparent, elegant, possessing a good weight -- quite a beautiful object, really.  And, well - esthetics are important.

Anyway, the process for me is broken down into stages, moving from top to bottom.  At the top, all ideas, images, sounds, words, references, media - however dislogical  or incomprehensible - are allowed in.  Nothing is edited, nothing even evaluated.  If something seems like it might be of any value, if something strikes me in some way - I let it in, regardless of the fact that I know I’m going to end up with many more raw ideas than I could ever use. I realized recently in the piece I’m working on that I have enough raw ideas to make 4 new works.  Well, better a surfeit than a dearth.  Sure : many of these initial ideas and impressions end up being dead ends, but the nice thing is, when I start to process a story or idea, I become like a magnet - unconsciously drawing in things that come my way that have the right polarity.
Fahrenheit 451I have to keep reminding myself that - even though something may prove to be a dead end - it may lead to a core idea in the final product.  And the fact is that the meta-lens I have developed (and continue to fine tune the more things I make) is already at work doing some unconscious editing, and not just in the thematic arena : there is a whole host of other proclivities at play.  For instance, I’m a big fan of work that has an intellectual complexity, a thickness of mythic & historical references, an aural density; and I have a fascination with shadows, doors, windows, ghosts and formal composition.  I also have a fear of color - I tend to start ideas in black and white - and this plays into it all (color comes later). 

All of this is part of the alchemy of that ‘lens’, and the great thing about the brain is that it’s going to employ these screens whether I like it or not, so I say to my brain : carry on.  Do do that voodoo that you do so well.  In fact, I’ve found that when I get stuck when writing, the best thing to do is walk away, take a walk, take a drive, do some stupid errand -- and get out of the way and let the brain do some of the heavy lifting.  It almost always works, no matter how counter-intuitive it is to stop working in order to get work done.  It’s why I always carry around a little digital recorder so I can take notes, get down ideas that come to me in these ‘walk away’ moments rapidly (writing things down is too slow and cumbersome). 

Alright, so I have all these things I have come to like over the years : loss, myth, shadows, ghosts and the like.  However, part of the purpose of this open start to the process -- this letting in of anything that wants in -- is to subvert these preferences, to open up new arenas of possibility.  And partly because I am trying to take risks, this part of the process is very private - because at this stage, the creative process is quite fragile.  All new works, all new ideas start out in a state of great fragility, and sharing things too early in public can be catastrophic – I’m very vulnerable to other people’s dismissal of my nascent ideas, and very vulnerable to suggestions that may easily lead me off the elusive track of the thing I am pursuing whose true identity I don’t really even know yet. 

The ARthitect of No PlaceIt occurs to me that the process of a single work is a bit parallel to the larger course of a career.  When we’re at an early stage in our work lives, putting ideas in front of others is an act of both bravery and foolishness, but in my field, the work has no real value until it is put before the public.  I suppose there are Gauguins out there who move to inaccessible places and create work purely for themselves, purely for the creative act itself.  But there is an absurdity in that proposition that borders on the insane -- a state that, at times, I have to say I wish I lived in.  No matter.  Early in the work life, the pain that we experience when first exposing our ideas publicly can be real and deep, and can easily lead either to quitting or to strengthening - which, for good or ill, requires the building up of scar tissue in order to survive criticism and keep going. I think the hubris of youth is a very valuable asset at this stage of the game.  When you get older, success helps to take the place of youthful hubris, and thankfully success can be measured in more ways than wealth or a Pulitzer. 

The thing is, in developing a good process of making work, we increase the quality of the time in which we allow ourselves to be Gauguins - alone and enjoying the making of things.  Ultimately, everything has to get out in the world, and in truth the moments when our work affects others become the touchstones from which we derive the courage to go on creating work.  That’s where the real durability comes in, but I believe it’s a durability that can only come about with the substructure of good process. Fact is, a life in creative work is riddled with hidden holes through which the pain of exposure can readily pass, smacking us in the head at unguarded moments, even decades after we have embarked on our careers, built up scar tissue, and even after we have achieved “success” in our field. Volatility is simply the state of being for those involved in such pursuits.  So it goes.  Nonetheless, as far as I’m concerned, the moments of reward are so powerful a drug that I continue on.  When a story works, when an audience is moved, when elements combine to reveal something new to audience or artist, I am compelled to continue -- like an archaeologist who finds a bone fragment, I want to continue the search for the next fragment that will answer another part of the question.

Okay, so I’ve let everything into the top of the Martini glass, and after a little while, I start to feel a bit full.  There is this odd little story that sticks in my brain, about Milton when he was composing “Paradise Lost” - he was totally blind at the time, composed the poem in his brain each night, and dictated it 40 lines at a time, every day for four years, to a secretary.  But some days the secretary would be late, and Milton would cry out “I need to be milked!”  Well, I think this period of time in the Martini paradigm is similar : I’m not at all finished with the work at hand, but I get… antsy. 

Sadie in the RoomSo in mid-Martini, I start to talk about the ideas out loud -- and in talking, the things that are central to the project start to reveal themselves.  What I’m doing when I say things aloud (hopefully to people I trust and respect) is in truth not so much to see what reactions I get, but more to hear myself -- to see what my voice sounds like when the words hit the air : am I embarrassed by the words, or do they have a solidity?  Where do the thoughts drift off into uncertainty, where do they land?  And the more I say these things out loud, the more I unconsciously edit them, shape them - start to understand publicly what the thing is, what its shape is, its tone, color, central ideas, characters, images, etc.  This is another scary time period – another moment of fragility - but it is the phase that leads to durability, for what I am doing is fine tuning my meta-lens into the particularized lens for this particular work - and as it attains clarity, I use that lens to weed out the stuff that sits at the top of the Martini glass.  Now I can start to edit and really shape the raw materials I’ve collected. 

If it hasn’t happened before this, this is the time when the Big Paper comes out.  I buy these 500’ rolls of cheap, brown Kraft paper so I’m not working with anything precious.  I can tear off 20’ of paper, tack it up on a wall and scrawl ideas, make arrows, tape up photos, make diagrams… all as part of the process of bringing the ideas out into the public sphere.  It becomes a kind of diagram of the internal workings of my brain, of the Martini process to date.  Now others can add their thoughts, ideas, images to the mix.  But by this time, the lens I have fashioned for the work exists.  The input of others only tempers the lens, fine tunes it.

As things pass through the lens (the olive, in my metaphor), they filter down the stem into the final product.  You get the analogy.  But I’m convinced that the most important part of the work is the top of the glass – the period of ‘generation’ in which ideas are allowed in and start to develop on their own volition.  And it is this part of the process that is most difficult to indulge in, especially if I have a deadline, especially when I know that 60% of the raw material will fall by the wayside, including some ideas that at the outset I was convinced were central to the project.  This initial certainty is another common element to my process --these early absolutes that are a kind of armor I put on in order to allow the softer, more fragile parts of the process to flourish, protected.  And sometimes I find myself with actors, designers and others who are staring at me, waiting for some definition to the project at hand - so throwing out some certainly can buy me some time.  Then, of course, I have to massage them back into the True Path once the True Path reveals itself.  So be it.  In the best of situations, I find myself with other like minds who embrace the process as well.  I worked once with a set designer who didn’t come up with the final design until a week before the production opened, but we had been so intimate with the process all along that - even though I was creating and staging the work without a set - when the design finally arrived, it seemed absolutely right -- the appropriate end product of the process -- and so the work I had done on my end slid effortlessly into the design with few adjustments. 

Clearly, faith is a big element if one is working this way.  I suppose it may be more apparent that - say, if you’re a painter - there is more room for indulging such a process.  My work always has deadlines.  But I deeply believe that if I allow the process enough space and trust, it will deliver - and the final putting together of the project will end up in this strange place where all the pieces indeed fall into place because the architecture is right, and the ground properly prepared.  Zen.  It’s all about Zen.

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