Friday, November 29, 2013

Interview with Nick Shaw, of the EIU Theatre Department

Could you explain how we might approach and understand the role of set design in a play?

Set design creates an environment within which a play can occur. It can act as a frame, but that really depends on the production. Black box theatre space surrounds the audience with the set design. A proscenium production has the stage in front, and everyone sees the play from the same direction or angle. Here we create the world that the audience looks at.

The theatre is different from any other art or endeavor in that it's alive, it's a collaboration between the actors and the audience.

Can you address the role of writing in your field?

There are three aspects of writing when it comes to set design:

1. Personal writings, almost like a journal – about the design. This is usually informal. Depending on the production, it can be almost stream-of-conscious writing, my thoughts about the script.

2. At other times the writing may be more formal – a concept may have been created, to which I respond.  In this case, the writing is not only about the play itself, but includes the vision, how it feels and sounds; this writing will emphasize a specific mood or feeling. It's up to me which kind of writing is called for.

The decision is influenced by the play and the nature of the collaboration on that particular production. A more visual approach [to set design] is sometimes called for, or the demand may be more theoretical. It all depends on the director. I use photoshop – set design is, in the end, a visual medium. The final result will always be visual. Writing supports that journey as a form of communication.

3. There's also writing as a form of communication with the other members of the team. However, if all the designers & the director are on site, typically we don't write.

With the advent of email, long distance design is more prevalent. For instance, I did a show in Chicago and did not meet with the rest of the team until a couple of weeks before the show. A lot of my work goes on-line because it allows me to work at home or on the road.

What sorts of writing do you do? What types of documents do you produce?

Sometimes, depending on the production, I may create a design statement for advertisement and dramaturgy (the research component of the production). In that case, I condense the writing into a 2-3 paragraph statement. That writing may be posted in the lobby or in the playbill. Set design, like all art, speaks for itself. Writing in this instance is an educational tool.

How important is it for actors to write well as members of a community that uses performance to communicate ideas?

Writing is extremely important as part of the communicative process because our work is collaborative. Those notes & emails we send act as an archive of the production. The team includes the director, the actors and the scene designers. It takes so many people to get that production on stage. However, the director is the captain of the ship. Ideally, the collaboration follows the director's vision of the production.

Writing is also important because we are concerned with the playwright's intentions, with the play itself, with layers of the production's vision of that play, and with integrating all of these ideas into an authentic production of that work. The playwright had an intention in writing that play. We respect that intentionality. Arthur Miller, for example, stopped the production of versions of his play because he did not feel they were serving his vision.

Directors weigh the playwright's intentions differently. Sometimes the words are simply a scaffolding. Others feel that the play is gospel. It all depends on the intent of the production. If the playwright is living, they can object. However, I've had an experience where the playwright allowed for a different ending. We pay to use the works, but we always respect the intentions of the playwright.

Do you see written responses to plays and performances by students as beneficial? If so, how?

Yes, for every class that I teach, whether it's Intro to Theatre, Stagecraft, or Scenic Design, my students always write responses to the production they are required to see. I want personal reflection, but the response also needs to be objective: what was successful and what was not? It is important to be critically analytical, to look at the play and consider its scale or scope. We don't judge what we do here at EIU against what they can do at U of I, for instance, or against local theatre. The intent and scale or scope of the production has to be considered.

What are the characteristics of “good writing” within and about the theatre?

Literature in the theatre is performed. The writing serves that end. The play, though written, is designed to be seen and not read. However, it is also true that if it reads well, the reader gets a sense of what that play is. There are plays that are challenging to read that also play very well. The plays of George Bernard Shaw, for example, read as dry, but are good in production because, when added to the human element, they take on a new life. The same is true for Shakespeare. In the end plays are written to be performed.

[O]n paper, a comedic scene in a play...usually reads as boring. However, when it is played, it comes to life. Noises Off is an example of that kind of play. We did it here three years ago. It's a farce. It contains a lot of site gags. The script itself is not really funny and in this sense it's only a technical description. Reading it can be funny but it's in the action that the comedy takes off.

How does one describe, through writing, acting methods, means, movements and ideologies?

The N.Y. Times is a best archive of the American Theatre. Not criticism, but reviews, taken at a yearly basis, allow one to see the shape and evolution of the theatre. The genre of theatre criticism tells us where we've been and where we're going. One of our faculty members, Dr. Mitchell, has a doctorate in theatre criticism – it's a separate genre. It's very theoretical. Practical application is different.

That's where dramaturge is important. Critical research looks at past productions, considers the audience and the intent of the production. Costume design must matter to the scope of the production, to the audience, the director and the designers. If we're doing a piece set in the 1940s, for instance, and my budget is only $1000, I make things work. It's about resources.

What are some of the key ways that you might articulate a complicated ideas about the theatre to incoming students?

When I teach Intro. to Theatre my students run the gamut. Some know a bit about the theatre and others have never seen a play. I reduce the amount of jargon I use and speak in ways that are more accessible to them. I also find common experiences to help build on an idea. Although it may not be correct to use cinema as an example, it may be the only way to get across an idea about theatre.

That's one reason why I require all students to see the productions here on campus. Once they do, we are able to get on the same page more quickly. This is because the theatre is a one-time, live performance medium. It is meant to be experienced. Moreover, even if we all see the same play, if we go on different nights, or sit in different parts of the theatre, we do not all see the same show. The play changes with every performance. There's no way to record that experience for “play back.”

There is an intimacy and an immediacy to the performance that cannot be relived. How do we talk about something so ethereal? The only way I know is to rely on personal reflection. Each person has to answer the question for themselves. What was your experience? It will always be individual. The immediate feedback loop is a magical part of theatre.

What can we do to become more informed about the role of theatre in the community, and about the preforming arts in general, and better able to understand and appreciate the work that goes into theatrical productions?

The most important thing is to see a production. As theatre artists, we are challenged to keep theatre relevant. It is a different experience from other mediums, different than watching TV or seeing a movie. Theatre investigates the human condition and it will touch something different in each of us. The audience has an influence on the production.

The theatre works hard to keep current in those topics that we, as Americans, and the world, are facing. A full theatrical release is an event. It takes so much work to comment on, write a script for, create a set, and still keep the play current. Susan Lori Parks, for instance, writes about the African American experience. Her work is both visceral and gut wrenching. The theatre is a very diverse culture. Plays are written from all perspectives: feminist, gay, gender identity – each is a genre within the theatre.

Looking ahead, Macbeth will play February 26 through March 2, 2014.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Is There Really No I in Technical Writing?

Well okay, there are three I’s.  However, the principle holds true.  If you ask your Little Brown Handbook, it will tell you that scientists “rarely use I in their reports and evaluations.”  But if this particular authority does not satisfy or if you cannot locate it—check beneath the dirty clothes beneath the pizza boxes—then let us reason it out. Why do instructors require a tone of objectivity in technical assignments?

The beginning of an answer to this question lies is in the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity.  Wiping away the common suffixes, we get the words object and subject.  Going back to sentence basics, we remember that the subject “verbs” the object: the panther (subject) eats the redbird (object).  While writers in the humanities highlight the subject and its actions or perceptions, writers in the sciences try to keep the reader's focus on the object. Why?

In the applied sciences the scientific method reigns.  This means that only data, raw information, is allowed to speak the truth.  In the example below, we will see why it can be useful to use a passive construction that puts the focus on what happened, not who did it. 

Though you may be an Eastern Illinois Panther, you do not want to be accused of bias when reporting the consumption of the Illinois State Redbird.  So instead of the truthful claim “I ate the Redbird,”  you will state that "The Redbird was eaten by the Panther."  By this phrasing (technically a "passive" construction), you distance yourself from the intrastate mauling, reporting on it as an objective observer, and preserving your scientific integrity. You cannot be accused of tampering with the natural food chain.  The result presents itself as a fact.

Of course, when you snap back to the classroom, you remember why I was bugging you in the first place.  November wanes, and your research paper remains unwritten.  It remains unwritten because it is no fun to write a paper when you and your perspective have to stay outside.  And it is cold outside.

But there is hope!  You may have to avoid being subjective, but you can still write with style. 

For help with the objectivity blues, we will look to the journalists.  Journalistic writing is an unusual blend of scientific objectivity and creative storytelling.  Even the driest of research paper topics can, with a touch of journalistic flair, be composed in a compelling manner. 

The Migration Habits of Mealworms

The consensus remained uncontested until intrepid zoologist Timothy J. Vanderwinkle introduced his findings on the Tenebrio Molitor.  “This is big.  I mean really big,” stated Vanderwinkle.  While scholarship previously held that mealworms strictly navigate by consecutive bilateral scuttles, the new data suggests that motility is infrequently interrupted by oscillating mandible scampers.  The debate sparked by this new data is certain to divide Entomologists until further information is unearthed.

-do not ever use the above excerpt for any scientific, academic, or other purposes

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Full-Court Press: Interview with Jay Spoonhour, EIU Men's Basketball Head Coach

What first impressed me about Coach Spoonhour was his coolness. He wore a EIU track suit, and several times during the interview he leaned way back in his chair and placed his hands firmly behind his head. Athletes tend to have a way more comfortable relationship with physical objects than, say, English graduate students. Navigating the actual world is an anxiety-fraught activity for us. As I write this, I have noticed that one of my bookshelves leans forward at a dangerous angle. It could easily fall and crush me. Come to think of it, that's probably how I will die; I will be bludgeoned to death by books. Maybe that's why athletes strike me as being really cool; they're not subconsciously terrified of the objects that surround them.

Anyway, I was surprised to learn that Coach Spoonhour is both an athlete and one of us literary folk. Not only was he an English major before switching to Physical Education, but Coach Spoonhour is also working on a novel, which he hopes to finish someday, probably when he's not the head coach at a Division 1 basketball program.

Much of our discussion focused on reading. During his undergraduate days, Coach Spoonhour enjoyed Yeats and Shelley. He remains an avid reader, although the subject matter has changed over the years. He proved his point by removing a Bill O'Reilly book from his bag.

"If you read a lot, it helps with your writing," said Coach Spoonhour. "Each generation that comes along, they read a little bit less."

Coach Spoonhour made an interesting connection between sports and reading. Famous NBA coach Phil Jackson (Bulls and Lakers fans should be familiar with the name) used to give players books to read on long trips. According to Coach Spoonhour, Phil Jackson gave players books that he knew they would enjoy, as well as books from which they could learn.

"It never hurts to tell a guy reading can actually be fun," said Coach Spoonhour. In light of Phil Jackson's career, it might not be a bad idea for all coaches to provide their players with books (I'm looking at you, Saint Louis University. I want a Sweet Sixteen appearance this year).

Beyond reading, Coach Spoonhour and I also talked about the place of writing in contemporary culture. Like a lot of humans above the age of twenty, Coach Spoonhour has some reservations about the influence of social media on the literacy of today's youth: "I think the social media stuff is going to make it so that writing loses it's importance. Being able to write properly will be lost a little bit. Everything is abbreviated. It worries me that kids aren't going to know what proper writing is supposed to look like."

I pointed out that people back in the day had similar fears about television. TV was not only going to change writing and reading, it was going to replace them. Obviously, that didn't happen.

"Yeah, but people read less," said Coach Spoonhour. "Libraries used to be a place where people spent a lot of time, and now not so much."

Furthering this point, Coach Spoonhour mentioned that he does little writing in his own job. The team communicates with players either verbally or through text messages. The writing in scouting reports is sparse and generally in bullet-points. However, Coach Spoonhour believes writing remains an important skill.

"I could go an entire week and not write anything of substance," said Coach Spoonhour. "But it's like anything; if you can do it, it helps. The job is coaching, but it is also fundraising, dealing with boosters and fundraisers." Although I didn't ask, I wonder if Coach Spoonhour has ever quoted a little Yeats or Shelley in a room full of donors; talk about literature classes paying off.

When I asked Coach Spoonhour what he remembered about his own literacy formation, he immediately mentioned reading notes and thank you cards written by his father. Coach Spoonhour's father was also a college basketball coach. Charlie Spoonhour spent several years at my alma mater, Saint Louis University. "Spoonball" is still a term thrown around Saint Louis area sports bars.

"All of my dad's stuff was really funny," he said. "So, my whole idea about writing was to make people laugh. And, everything my dad wrote sounded like him speaking, which I recognized was the way you were supposed to write. Even if grammatically it didn't match, or the syntax wasn't perfect, as long as it read like you were speaking it, it would get its point across. That was how I started writing."

However, Coach Spoonhour has moved past copying speech in his writing. He noted that he enjoys using semicolons and dashes. "Not hyphens, but a dash, an actual dash," he said, his finger jabbing at the air for emphasis. It kind of felt like a pep talk. I immediately started thinking about how to incorporate more dashes into my writing. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Show & Tell

This is the second in a series about the rules of good writing.

The Second Basic Principle: Show, don't tell.

What does “show, don’t just tell” really mean? To answer that question, I'll ask another one by way of an example. Can you remember being in elementary school on show-n-tell day? Imagine the kid who gets up in front of you and your classmates, empty-handed, and then claims to have a baseball signed by Hank Aaron that’s in perfect condition, only she can’t bring it to school. You can see the eye rolls, can't you?

Even though you’re only eight years old, you know that the story has a few problems. Not only can you not see the ball to know exactly what “perfect condition” looks like, but you can't eyeball the signature, sniff the leather or count the stitches. In other words, you have no reason to believe this kid even if she describes the ball perfectly.

If you tell without showing, your readers might not believe you. In other words, you have to show what you mean. Good writing tends to draw an image in the readers’ mind.

Here's an example of a sentence that tells:

Mr. Schlopenferker is a gangly, ungrateful, and untidy old codger.

There’s a better way to create a stronger image of Mr. Schlopenferker in the reader's mind's eye -- by showing, rather than telling:

Mr. Schlopenferker heaved himself out of the filthy, dilapidated armchair. He struggled to get to his feet and to support his ample length with his cane. The chair groaned in protest. Mr. Schlopenferker's swollen, misshapen knees popped and cracked in objection. The old man pounded the floor with his cane, cursing because the coffee in his cup was cold again.

In the second example, I didn’t just tell you that Mr. Schlopenferker is tall. I showed it by writing that he struggled to get to his feet, and by describing his ample height. I also didn’t just tell you that Mr. Schlopenferker is old. I showed it by mentioning his swollen, misshapen knees popping and cracking, and his cane. I also didn’t tell you that he's ungrateful, but the impatience of a pounding cane has you thinking that he may not be a very appreciative man.

Showing, not telling, gives the reader a clearer picture of what's happening. Whenever possible, offer vivid and specific descriptions to offset mind-numbing statistics about the ingratitude of the old, and endless bar charts and graphs proving this improbable statistic. Showing, and not telling, gives the reader close-up details. The lens of the camera comes in nice and tight on your subject. 

Remember: whenever possible, show don't just tell.