News for January 2010

A word about art.

Seth Godin has a pretty simple definition of art.

I happen to think his definition is too simple.

Godin states that his definition of art has three elements. Let’s take them one by one.

1. Art is made by a human being.

Unless it’s not. Is the art in an Ansel Adams photograph the photo itself or the landscape he shot? Is it simply his eye and the way he framed it, or is the art still there in nature, waiting to be seen? Can’t it be both?

Take a look at The Asian Elephant Art Conservation Project, which features and sells some astonishing paintings created by elephants. Elephants. The line painting of an elephant walking is just astounding. And elephants aren’t the only animals who can create what could legitimately be called art.

2. Art is created to have an impact, to change someone else.

Unless it’s not. I tell stories because I have to tell them. They have to come out. I cannot not write. But once I’ve written it down, that story exists even if no one else ever sees it. You could say that the story has an impact on my own development and evolution as a writer, but that is a by-product, that is not the impulse behind the actual writing.

“Changing someone else” is also a by-product. If someone is genuinely changed by a story or a play that I’ve written–and if that change is for the better–that’s lovely. If you want to say that their enjoyment of a play over two hours is a change in itself, then fine. Because that’s really the only goal I have when I write a play–to tell a story that entertains you, maybe makes you think. If you enjoy it–if you want to see more–then I’ve done my job.

Vincent van Gogh–of whom I know just a little–had no such expectations. He painted because this is how he saw the world and he had to document that vision. His work was little-seen in his lifetime, he had little to no impact on anyone else at the time. His one attempt to create a studio of collaborating artists was a brief, dismal failure. And yet, his art has had tremendous impact, it did change the world in terms of what was possible in a painting. But those were secondary, those were by-products. Vincent never knew them in his lifetime.

3. Art is a gift. You can sell the souvenir, the canvas, the recording…but the idea itself is free, and the generosity is a critical part of making art.

Unless it’s not. The idea is indeed a gift, but it’s the artist’s gift. And only through the artist does the art come into existence. The artist is the lens through which the idea takes focus, shape, dimension. You might see the Grand Canyon, and not really see it until you look at an Adams photograph. I can tell you the idea of the story of Hamlet in under a minute, but that “idea” is not the art of the story, it can’t replace the four hours of Shakespeare’s text. If I tell you point blank who or what Rosebud is, it doesn’t mean you’d come up with the story of Citizen Kane yourself.

Or is he saying that the generosity comes from sharing the work in a public forum? Because again, unless you pay for your theatre ticket, you won’t experience any more of my theatre production than that two or three sentence description you read in the paper. Whether you see the play or not, the play is still there, the art has been made. Sharing it is secondary. I’m not so much selling my play out of some mercenary impulse as I am trying to earn the money to pay the cast and crew, to pay my own salary, to continue to have the freedom to tell stories, to make my art. Art is work, and the workers have every right to be compensated.

Godin concludes by saying, “By my definition, most art has nothing to do with oil paint or marble. Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work.

You may call your best work, your “what we’re doing when we do our best work” art, sir. But that devalues the word “art” for those of us who toil at it, who might be crazy enough to try and make a living from selling our “souvenirs.” It redefines the word away from something of value to something that is freely and generously shared. It posits that without that freedom, without that sharing, it is something less than pure art.

It is up to me as an artist to decide how I will share my work. That work is my commodity, it is all I have to give. And make no mistake, I have given away plenty of art, whether as prints to friends, scripts to small theatre groups, marketing designs for strapped college theatre departments, what have you. I have done quite a bit of free artwork in my time. But that was my decision. It does not change the value of the art I try to sell, it does not elevate the value of the art given freely.

People wonder why there are so many starving artists. It’s definitions like this that help to keep them starving.

Posted: January 25th, 2010
Categories: the process
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Comments: 1 Comment.

The Title’s a Spoiler.

Picking up on the theme of making merry of Mamet, here’s scene seven from my play The Rough Guide to the Underworld, featuring a more specific parody. It’s set in a bar in the Underworld, the Tenth Circle…

Sexual Perversity Inferno

The play itself started life as a series of monologues, then expanded into a set of sketches. That was the plan. A revue. Until the characters began to drift from sketch to sketch and interact with one another. Suddenly, there was a story, a throughline, several tales woven in and out of each other.

Matthew Wilson, Kevin Pierson, Bob Rogerson, Laura C. Harris and Gillian Shelly in 'The Rough Guide to the Underworld' at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington D.C., June/July 2009.

(left to right) Matthew Wilson, Kevin Pierson, Bob Rogerson, Laura C. Harris and Gillian Shelly in The Rough Guide to the Underworld, at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington D.C., June/July 2009.

This particular thread involves a writer named Dante (no relation) and a film producer named Bobby. Of course, Mamet’s play Speed-the-Plow features a film producer named Bobby. What’s not as well known is his one-act follow-up, Bobby Gould in Hell. Add to that the fact that the first scene of Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a dialogue between Bernie and Danny. You can probably see where I connected the dots.

So the first minute of this scene is an almost direct parody of the first scene from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, except it goes off into film production instead of sexual conquests. From there, it spins into its own weird little story…

As for the scene title, all of the scenes in The Rough Guide to the Underworld have titles, which can be projected above/behind the action if so desired. In this case, the title isn’t so much a spoiler as a heads-up for Mamet jokes. There’s a different title in here that’s a spoiler. But I’m not going to spoil that part.

Posted: January 24th, 2010
Categories: parody, plays, the process
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Repetitive Christmas Tunes.

Here’s a lyric I wrote four years ago for my wife, who hates a certain Christmas song by Paul McCartney.

There’s not much to explain about this process, except for a wonderful discovery while writing. In the bridge sections of the song, I threw in a joke about John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) as a throwaway gag. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized you could sing the two songs in counterpoint.

I’ll leave it to the musicologists to parse what that says about the respective songwriters. I’m just happy to have the extra joke…

(to the tune of Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney)

The Moog is on,
The organs beep,
We hear some bells,
And I might weep

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

McCartney’s on,
The song is bland,
A melody
I cannot stand

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

The choir of children sing their song
Ding dong, King Kong,
Sing-song gone wrong…

(War is over,
No, it isn’t…
War is over,
No, it isn’t…)

Ohhhh
Ohhhhhhh

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

The words are short,
They seem to be
One syllable,
Simplicity

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

The choir of children repeat their words,
This song is for the birds
Sing song, sing song (War is over)
Ding dong, ding dong (No, it isn’t)
Ding dong, ding dong (That’s John Lennon)
(No, it’s a cover…)

The music’s played,
The spirits drunk,
Let’s hunt him down,
Man on the run…

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

The Moog is on,
The organs beep,
We hear Sir Paul,
And I might weep

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes (Song is over…)
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes (If you want it…)
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes (Song is over…)
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes (Now…)

Ohhhhhhhhh
Christmas tunes

Posted: January 24th, 2010
Categories: music, parody, the process
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Comments: 4 Comments.

Nightdogs.

This is one of my favorite pieces, bar none.

Years ago, when I was still doing their marketing designs, the Hanover College Theatre put on a revue of sketches, short plays and songs under the banner title, “I Have to Say I Love You.” The only caveat for the artwork: don’t use hearts, don’t do the cliches.

I tried design after design, I went to rehearsals and watched the show, but nothing was coming to me. Finally, I asked the director what his idea of the show was, because–aside from love and all the cliches–it was escaping me. “Well, I’d like to think it’s like an issue of the New Yorker.” Stories, cartoons, short pieces. The first image popped into my head. Within the week, there were approximately 40 faux New Yorker cartoons, all in various styles, from Thurber to Addams, Arno to Chast, Gorey to BEK.

This was before I had children or cats roaming my home at will.

Eventually, all of the cartoons wound up on posters, cards, even programs. There were four variant programs, each with unique artwork on the cover and throughout. We mixed and matched so that–hopefully–no two people sitting next to each other got the same artwork.

This poster is one that I’ve captioned Nightdogs. It’s Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting as James Thurber might have redrawn it, albeit with a lot more chiaroscuro than Thurber would’ve used. A lot more.

Of course, that was the challenge, balancing the Thurber dogs with the Hopper style and staying as true to each as possible.

There are a couple of small in-jokes, too. If you look at the sign over the window, you’ll see the phrase, “My Diner and Welcome to It,” which refers to the celebrated 1969 sitcom My World and Welcome To It, adapted from Thurber’s writing. (You can see some of the show here if you’re curious.)

There’s also a reference in the sign to Thurber and Hopper as well as Charles Schulz, who acknowledged Thurber as an influence. If you look really closely, you might even spot where that influence went…

What did this image have to do with the show? Not much by itself. But as part of a larger campaign–with twelve different poster designs, six different flyers and four different programs–it set the mood. You were going to see something like an issue of the New Yorker unfold on stage. Some of the cartoons had more to do with the specific theme of love than others–and I do plan to share some of those later.

But this one’s my favorite of all.

Posted: January 24th, 2010
Categories: artwork, marketing, parody, the process
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Colors on the snowy linen land.

In late 2008, Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, commissioned a play about Vincent van Gogh. Their one request was that it should include at least part of one of Vincent’s sermons from when he was briefly a clergyman. I’d already had an idea for a story of van Gogh, using the letters and story of his friend and protege Emile Bernard to show us a side of van Gogh we haven’t often seen. That’s how Seeing Red was born. That’s all a story for another post.

Right now, we’re just looking at the promotional art.

Seeing Red postcard

This was the primary artwork when we performed the show in Madison, Indiana, in Sept 2009. It had evolved from the original design we used in Georgia in Feb 2009.

Because we’re seeing Vincent from the angle of another artist, we see a black and white outline of one of Vincent’s self-portraits. It is for us, and for Bernard, to fill in the colors, the details. The text is in a clear, clean font for contrast and visibility from a distance. The title itself comes from a phrase in one of Vincent’s letters describing his condition as “seeing red,” which is the only color we see in the artwork.

The frame, while appropriate to the subject, is actually carried over from previous shows as part of our house style. Local audiences see this and even if they can’t make anything else out, they know that it’s a Riverrun Theatre poster because of the style.

Posted: January 23rd, 2010
Categories: artwork, marketing, the process
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Comments: 5 Comments.

Shakespeareal Perversity.

This is a piece written on a dare to share with some folks in the Boston area who are well acquainted with David Mamet. There was a good reason why it involved Othello, but that reason has been lost to the sands of time.

Sexual Perversity and Iago

All I know is, if it weren’t for actor Nick Newell, this little scene wouldn’t exist. For that, I think him.

Posted: January 23rd, 2010
Categories: parody, plays
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Suo Gan.

Another song, this arranged and performed by the lovely singer/songwriter Tamara Dearing, one of our regular actors. (And we’re very lucky to have her.)

This is an adaptation of an old Welsh lullaby, Suo Gan, which has become something of a Christmas song for no apparent reason. It may be most famous from Christian Bale lip-synching it in Empire of the Sun.

We used it as part of our reading of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. It fit nicely at the end, where he’s tucked in bed and going to sleep. Because the lyrics had little to do with Christmas–and because no one seems to sing a true translation of the original Welsh anyway–I wrote a new, simple verse to fit the holiday a little more closely. It starts with the original first lines in Welsh. I gave it to Tamara, said “do what you will with it.”

Tamara, being Tamara, decided to learn the actual Welsh, create a soundscape of voices and then bring in the new verse as a harmony on top of everything. Every element you hear in this track is Tamara, from the voices to the instrumentation. Needless to say, this blew everyone away…

Tamara Dearing – Suo Gan

Suo Gan English lyric by David J. Loehr

Huna blentyn yn fy mynwes
hee-na blen-TIN ar-va MON-wez
Clyd a chynnes ydyw hon
kleed a han-NESS ah-DYOO han
Sleep, my angel, I will hold you,
I will keep you safe from harm

Like the angel told the shepherds,
Like the kings who saw the star,
Like the baby in His manger,
I will love you, forever more.

Creative Commons License

Suo Gan by Tamara Dearing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.tamaradearing.com.

Posted: January 22nd, 2010
Categories: music, songwriting, the process
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A first post and a song.

It’s long overdue, but I’m finally blogging about creative work again. And since “share your music day” is as good a reason as any, thanks to Dave Charest and Sterling Lynch, here’s a song I wrote a while back, When I Needed You.

This is from my play, The Rough Guide to the Underworld, which we produced at home in 2006 and in D.C. in 2009. (The website is from the D.C. production, which was rewritten from top to bottom.) One of the characters wandering this version of the Underworld is a troubadour with amnesia. All of his “original” songs are covers. Except this one at the end of the play, when he finally remembers…

Since part of the point here is to share “the process,” here’s how it came to be. I’d had the first three lines and the first chorus–and of course, the melody–in my head for a few years, but the song never wanted to finish itself. I didn’t know where the melody had come from or why these lyrics stuck to it. When I realized I needed a song for the Underworld–and when I knew who and what it was about–the rest of the words and the bridge melody came in about ten minutes. If you’ve read or seen the play, you’ll know the story. If not, then maybe if you’re up on your classical stories, you may be able to guess who he really is.

I’ve included two versions, performed by my theatre partner Jim Stark, who originated the role. The one was recorded live in performance in 2006, the other is a demo (recorded via iPhone) in 2009. The demo has one flub, but the guitar part is so much more developed. (What’s astounding is, in the demo, he’s working from memory.) But I wanted to include the original performance for the moment at the end of the last verse that always hits me like an anvil in the chest…still does…

Jim Stark – When I Needed You (2009 demo)

Jim Stark – When I Needed You (2006 in performance)

When I Needed You — music and lyrics © 2006 by David J. Loehr

In darkest night, you were the light
At the end of the tunnel, burning bright,
There you were, when I needed you.
And with love begun, the risen sun
Paled in the glory of two made one,
There you were, when I needed you.

When I needed you, you were there for me,
Even when I did not always want you to be,
But there were times when I thought I’d do better alone,
Times when I’d rather have been on my own,
Times when I should have known
I needed you.

Now I realize, love never dies,
But once you were only behind my eyes,
There you were, when I needed you.

And that which falls away
At the end of the day
Is weight off my soul forever,
And that which remains,
It pains me to say, is you,
Only and ever

And at the last, present faded to past,
You were the one who was holding fast,
There you were, when I needed you.

When I needed you, you were there for me,
Even when I did not always know you to be,
But there were times when I thought I had nothing to learn,
Times when I wanted some bridges to burn,
Then I would have nowhere else to turn,
When I needed you.
I needed you.
I needed you.

Creative Commons License

When I Needed You by David J. Loehr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.davidjloehr.com.

Posted: January 7th, 2010
Categories: music, songwriting, the process
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Comments: 6 Comments.