Monday, May 30, 2011

Who Are Your Artistic Influencers?

It's a question an artist gets asked quite a lot in the theater. Or it's something that gets discussed generally. Who are your influencers? Whose work do you admire? It assumes your work doesn't come from within. Or that there isn't anything new, only recycled. And it's true, dat. Who knows what goes on in the subconscious, when you're so focused on a scene or even a line or two that, unaware to you, you're digging into your favorite playwright file.

But I also think it's a chicken and the egg question.

In my short playwriting career, anyone can see that I at the very least admire August Wilson and Sam Shepard. They both put characters on stage that had never been onstage before. August Wilson writes plays that are true to his people. I try to do the same thing. Sam Shepard writes about the American family the same way I try to, and seems to have the same point of view of American society, where it's headed, and where the answers lie. It was a compliment to me when someone, after reading Fool for Love for the first time, said, Oh, now I can see your sensibilities and why you like Sam Shepard. But I don't go around intentionally writing the way they do. If I do anything of the kind at all it's that I might use them as a departure and try to take my own riff on things. But one thing I don't think you'll ever see is a play I've written "set on an island off the coast of Massachusetts." To use a newspaper adage, it's not my beat.

And of course I admire Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neil. Just look how I write stage directions. I could read either one of those writers simply for their stage directions. 

But more to the point, just like Wilson's major influences were, as he called them, the Four B's (the blues, Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden, and Jorge Luis Borges), I wouldn't say I necessarily draw inspiration from the theater and playwrights. Heavens. My big gripe with most theater people is they spend way too much time in the theater. I think any artist should live their lives--raise families, travel, work on a shrimp boat in the Gulf--and then take what you learn and put it on the canvas, or in your music, or on the stage. So many of the people I talk to know so much more about the theater than I do, but I wonder if they know anything about their fellow human beings.

I started out in life as a photographer. To this day I am a very visual person, to the point where one of my profs, in exasperation I think, said one of my scripts was a screenplay, not a theater script. I was intentionally trying to write small visual snippets for the stage (think the end of Blasted.) She was not going to have any of it, though. I do constantly try to work visuals onto the stage, and when someone asks me what my influencers are, I'm always a bit nervous to actually tell the truth.

But then today I stumbled on this very interesting short documentary on Henri Cartier-Bresson, who should be on everyone's list of favorites artists, and should be a mentor for anyone who works in the arts because his approach to his work can, I think, be applied to anyone's art: painting, music, theater. His work was so influential (there's that word again) to so many of today's photographers, that to not know him and is work is a crime.

And then, I don't know why except I think in life circumstances happen that seem coincidental--I don't know if they are supposed to happen or that we're just more aware that they happen--but then over email I got notice of this project by Magnum photographers. Again, everyone should know about Magnum and the photographers who worked for this great agency. They are the greatest photographers in the world, and their approach to their work is something that all artists should strive. What they do with images playwrights try to do with words. As I looked through the photographers' portfolios, I was inspired to write a play about the people and things I saw. These people bring new worlds within the boundaries of own world, and they teach us.

Right now, I think I can say the one writer I greatly admire is Cormac McCarthy, and not for his success in the American cinema. Nor do I necessarily want to emulate him, but I do like the worlds he conjures up (and how he does it.)

Musically (and this will come as no surprise) but I love any of the great country singers (two favorites are Lucinda Williams and Chris Knight) for their storytelling abilities. (Here's just one example from Chris Knight.) The songs they write have so much drama and tension in them. And again, none of them are set on an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

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