October 27, 2004

Music Always Comes Back

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 2:55 pm

Mike from PG&E came over a couple of weeks ago to give our furnaces their annual tune-up before the cold weather hits. Upon walking in our front door, he did what most everyone does the first time they enter our home. His eyes slowly circled the walls of our entryway, living room and dining room, which are covered with a multitude of framed theater posters. Actually, the correct term is “window cards,” but hardly anyone knows what that means.

After the eyes scan, a comment invariably follows. Many people don’t know what they are. Some think they are movie posters (actually, to see our movie posters you have to turn a sharp right into the kitchen and head straight into our family room.) More than half realize they are window cards from plays. But Mike immediately noticed that of the 70 posters on display, all but 15 represented musicals. At first, he made the insightful comment we have heard before, “You like the musicals, huh?”

As he worked on the furnace, other comments came in periodic intervals.

“Have you seen all these shows?” The answer is “yes,” and hundreds more. These are only the posters from the shows which exploit all merchandising options.

“Did you really go to Broadway to see these shows?” Our collection is divided into two almost equal parts — shows we saw in London, and shows from various domestic productions.

“Do you do shows?” I told him although I love to sing, and did some shows in childhood and high school, I realized early on that I don’t have the temperament to do the same thing over and over again, night after night in rehearsal and performance.

“Are you still singing?” Yes, but rarely show tunes outside the confines of my home.

Mike worked in silence the rest of his visit, and then it came time for me to sign the paperwork. While I was giving him my autograph, Mike sighed and shared that his son used to sing in high school. Mike Jr. even won several vocal awards. But now that he’s in college, he’s not singing at all.

I quoted my father-in-law who says, “Music always comes back.” Mike repeated, “Music always comes back. Can I hold you to that?”

Mike is not the first parent I have spoken with who is lamenting a child’s apparent abandonment of a favored artform when he or she goes to college. I know the age group well enough to guess that most artistic coeds fit into one of four categories. There is the percentage who sang/painted/danced/drew/acted in high school and can’t wait to try out their talents in a bigger pond. Then there are those who spent a lot of time in high school developing their art, perhaps partially because they thought it would be an aspect of their college application that would give them an edge in a competitive admissions pool, and now that they are in college, they need to take a break to separate the art from the ulterior motive. There are those who felt like they had been put in a box labeled “Mike the Singer,” “Sarah the Painter,” “Morgan the Dancer,” and in college they are desperate to highlight other areas of their personalities. And then there are those who think the fast track to Med School/Biz School/Law School does not go through an art studio or rehearsal hall.

The artistic soul does not go away, though. It may lie dormant for a while, or it may torment the body in which it is housed until it is once again allowed to soar. But it does always come back. The rest of us just need to be patient while the artists find their own paths.

October 11, 2004

Completing my Senior Thesis 10 Years After Graduation

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 2:27 pm

My 10-year college reunion is this weekend, and in honor of the occasion, I have finally finished my senior thesis for my Bachelor of Arts degree in history and communication. As far as my college knows, I turned the thesis in 10 years ago, got an “A” and my degree, but I think my professor was mostly rewarding the fact that I could skillfully use all the b.s. smoke and mirrors available to me in writing an academic research paper on an esoteric subject, which she, an expert in 18th-century England, had never dreamed of tackling.

I wrote my paper about the 18th-century British stage actors who have the historical distinction of the being the first generation of thespians in England to be considered “stars” and not low-life professionals one-step-up from prostitutes in their career pursuits. I queried, “Why did actors suddenly become ‘stars?’”

Ten years ago, I turned my thesis in with a bogus, unfulfilling conclusion. Over 41 pages, I expound on the fact that there was a confluence of good P.R. and marketing factors in 18th-century England to lift those in the acting profession to stardom and socially acceptable celebrity. It was a time when printing and mass media put theater reviews, gossip and collectible images into the hands of the theater patrons from the middle and upper classes. The monarchy supported the arts and passed Acts to legitimize theater. And a talented and popular actor named David Garrick lived an enviable artistic life full of perceived virtue with a stellar Puritan work ethic making him as worthy of positive attention as the local bishop. I only fell asleep twice when re-reading my paper to prepare for this column.

The paper I turned in for a grade needed to have primary sources to back it up. I found fantastic primary sources about the concrete reasons actors might have become “stars.” However, the research paper I really wanted to write had to do with ineffable emotional connections between artists and audience and the innate human need to live an artful life directly or by proxy. It’s the same thesis I hammer bi-monthly in this column. Perhaps if I had access to hundreds of diaries of 18th-century theatergoers, I could have written the paper I really wanted. But my university archive didn’t have those, and so the paper had to change a little in order for me to finish by the end of the quarter.

Ten-years later, with a little perspective, I realize that my dissatisfaction with my research is underscored by the title I chose, “Living in a World of Make-Believe: The Implications of Actresses on the Public Stage in Eighteenth Century England.” It’s a pretty heady title, but not at all what I actually wrote about. I was obviously confused then, and that confusion has plagued me since.

Through this column, I believe I have finally found a self-satisfying answer to my research question. Actors with a cult of personality feed the human desire to feast on the arts in everyday life. Actors became “stars” in 18th-century England because for the first time, through the use of mass media, they were able to touch large numbers of people with their art. Even if someone couldn’t always go to the theater, they could follow the art through the newspaper, or the local trinket manufacturer selling mass-produced portraits or sculptures. The ephemeral art of stage acting became a part of our daily celebration of the arts during 18th-century England.

I can’t substantiate my new conclusion with primary sources and speculation from world-class scholars, but it feels right to me. Art is mostly about feelings, anyway. Cue the “Pomp and Circumstance.”