A Line In The Sand

I was watching the Kominsky Method on Netflix the other night, after finally wrenching myself away from the Hallmark channel. Michael Douglas, playing a big-time acting coach, brought up a situation that opened up a thought room I’d never been in. By the way, I’ve only watched one segment and… well, I guess I like it, but what it really does is make me think. And at my age, that gives it an A right out of the chute. It made me laugh, and it made me cry, if that’s any hint. I guess that’s not a bad review. For the first episode.

Anyway, the thought this first episode kicked up for me was this – as an actor, Kominsky says, “You play god.” That was pithy enough in itself, but that’s not what got me. It was the idea that when an actor plays another person, it’s never exactly the same way twice. Kominsky was making the point that to act a part that you feel, that becomes a part of you, is, ultimately more believable than thinking the part and playing it the way you imagine that person being. To my way of thinking, that would mean that a good actor is somewhat suspended between who she is and who the person she is playing is. To be believable, then, there must be a part of her in there somewhere. Yet the words are not her own, the staging is not her own. The emotions, to a degree, must be her own if she is to be believable.

In that regard, it seems that at some point she must call for some inspiration, especially if the character she’s playing is complex, difficult, and especially if the character is unlike the actor herself. Because sure, you can look the part, but can you act the part? And if she needs some inspiration to make this difficult character totally believable, where does this inspiration come from?

Where this wants to go is to the idea that we each end up doing what we’re capable of and what we’re comfortable with. It occurred to me that in acting, or in any artistic endeavor, for that matter, there are two very different kinds of people who make it all happen. There are the actors, the musicians, the dancers… the painters and the jewelry makers and the writers who all depend on some kind of inspiration for most of their performances. Then there are the audio engineers, the lighting directors, the stage managers… you get the idea. Many artists have a supporting cast of one sort or another. And that’s my point – the supporting cast is an entirely different kind of person from the artist. Not better, not worse, just different.

Vive La Difference

That difference is what caught my attention. I had never thought about it before, never realized it before. The fact that there are two distinctly different types of people who often work together to make art happen… well, that was news to me. Not that the news was deep, new, earth-shattering or mind-expanding. No, it was just a fact that, until right now, had escaped me.

I’ve been a musician and an audio engineer. I know the difference between the two …. as well as anyone. I was a decent audio engineer. Never was a technician, but I could wire a home studio together and make it sing. So yeah, I was a decent engineer. But I was a much better musician. And therein lies the difference I want to talk about.

There Is No Wrong Way Here

You see, I have friends who are technicians. Many of them could operate nicely in either realm. Many audio engineers I know can play an instrument or two, usually fairly well. But, for what ever reason, they chose engineering as their main focus, their moneymaker, if you will. And that practical decision is probably the main reason so many of these talented people chose what I consider to be the “support” arts in the arts. That’s not to say they might not be artists themselves, because they often are artists. And their choices might have to do with their actual passion for their work, rather than making a “practical decision.”

My jewelry friends and painters pretty much promote their own wares, by shows and the internet. The writers simply need a publisher, who supplies an editor. But my musician friends and the dancers, and actors… well, we usually need sound guys, we need music and a stage, and props. And the actors? Hell, they need the most of all. They often need other actors, a good script, lighting, direction, stage managing and often artists who paint/build the background on the stage. And for a film or TV actor? Forget it. They need a fleet of technical folk to bring their performances alive.

Jack Waller, in his woodworking shop in Montana

Sitting on one of Jack’s fabulous benchs

 

I make that point for a reason. The technicians, as I said, might or might not be artists. There has always been a gray line between what is art and what is craft. And that’s the line I’m trying to draw, and explain here. I have no clue when craft becomes art. I sense that it must have something to do with spontaneity and inspiration. I do know that my old friend, Jack Waller, designs, builds and finishes benches, chairs, lamps and hat racks from parts of trees he has discovered, and brought home. In his case, he is both artist and wood worker… both artist and craftsman. I have another old friend, who was a fine actor as a young man, yet he moved into education and stage management for his life’s work. He also, later on, owned and managed a fine and successful art gallery and frame shop. There’s no doubt in my mind he has an artist’s heart. I must remember to ask him if he regrets not acting. Yet another example is an old friend who wrote these great songs with his guitar in his lap, while driving to work in traffic in his truck each day.  What did he do for a living? Hung doors in new construction housing.

 

Let’s Get Technical

So the line I’m interested in is the line between technician and artist. There’s no question that the technicians with artist leanings have picked their field of endeavor for practical purposes. Many of the people I know chose more practical lines of work as they wanted a marriage, a family, and knew they might well be the bread winner. My hat’s off to them, of course. Some knew the artist route was less secure, and decided on steadier work. They were right, and I applaud them. But what about the artists? Why did they choose to take the harder, less secure road? Where is that line, and what defines it?

For me, the line is very simple. The artists found a passion in the art, a passion they wanted to experience again and again. The more they experienced it, the better the feeling, the better they usually became in their art. And with any tiny degree of success they realized they couldn’t turn back, didn’t want to turn back. They were hooked!

That’s right, hooked! My theory is that artists have a talent that feels good to them, and they are also a somewhat addictive personality. To do what you truly love, and occasionally rise above your abilities to be better than you thought you could be, is totally addicting!

Hook, Line And Sinker

Now sure, some performers get addicted to the applause of a live audience, the interaction of artist and audience. For many of us, however, the applause is not the drug, not the addicting force. What pulls us back, again and again, is the euphoric power of spontaneous creativity, and the ethereal feeling that comes over and through us at the moment. It’s a moment when we become moved by an invisible source of inspiration that lifts us beyond ourselves and beyond our earthly abilities. For a few moments or minutes we are transported into a state of being a part of something so powerful, our hearts and minds become entwined in this magical feeling of becoming a part of all things. Some of us stop breathing, some can detach themselves from themselves and “look down” on themselves while still performing. Ask six different artists what that feeling is and you’ll most likely get at least four different answers. Then ask them if they consider themselves addictive personalities, and you’ll get, “Oh hell no! What makes you ask that?”

But we are. We are addicted to that wondrous element of spontaneous creativity which takes us where nothing else can. And that is where my line is drawn. It is right here, this irresistible magic that pulls us over “the line,” to turn away from security and probability; to follow, sometimes blindly, our passion for the moment, for the magic.

Lest you think we must be stupid to resist a set and secure future for some unseen, nearly inexplicable force that drives us to practice hard, work deep into the night on seemingly tiny elements of our art, let me assure you we’re not stupid. The decision we make to try our hands at being artists is not always thoroughly thought out, to be sure. But to us, it doesn’t matter. It’s what we wanted to do… in many cases it was what we had to do! And therein lies the big difference between the artist and the craftsman – the passion!

But Is It Art??

Perhaps we can define “craft” as our physical abilities, and what we do with those abilities as “art.” But when does our performance become art? Hell, I have no idea. But it must have something to do with our love of the craft, and how we handle the inspiration of the moment. Whether true or not, that’s deeper than I’m able or willing to go here.

On a personal level, it has never mattered to me whether my music ever was “art.” Simply doesn’t matter. Those countless moments of magic, mostly in playing with other fine musicians… that’s what matters. That’s all that matters, really. My ego soared during those times, being a part of an elite gathering of musicians who occasionally hit the heights of group spontaneity. And my heart felt complete, having dipped into that ethereal elixir that relatively few ever experience. Does that make me special? Perhaps in my own mind… certainly nowhere else. And that doesn’t matter, either. The fact that some of us have chased our dreams and our passion into the fog and somehow survived it, even made it work for us, is satisfaction enough.

Anyway, thank you, Michael Douglas, for The Kominsky Method. Thought-provoking and self-analyzing in its subject matter, it is a show I can’t wait to watch again. It has helped me define where my line in the sand might be, and which side of that line I am on, and have always been on. And that, in a strange way, is most satisfying in itself.

Steve Hulse