NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

August 15, 2013

Improvising a work of art

As I See It
Stuart Deane

---- — Because I was restless, I took a little walk that hot, steamy day into the interior of Maudslay State Park.

After taking some photos of the formal garden and tracing the foundation footprint of the long-destroyed Helen Moseley mansion, I took a turn into the pathway to the old estate cold cellar. The entrance loomed tall and dark, but it had always been closed off on previous visits. I was curious. As I headed into the side of the hill through the entryway chute, a flamboyant troupe of people of varying ages was meandering out. Two young women lingered inside.

Despite tarrying in the dank coolness to allow my eyes to adjust, it was still too dark to see much, so I started to head out. But first I asked of the two women, “Is something going on here?”

“We’re trying some scenes for an improv show,” said one.

“Well, I’d better improv right out of your way,” I replied. As I departed, a solo voice echoed from the darkness of the cellar, and a dancer stretched in the sunlight of the entryway.

On the way home I wondered about the motivation and the process of improv. Suddenly it occurred to me, “It must be a lot like writing an essay.”

An idea, an incident, a person triggers a thought process that meanders experimentally to a logical conclusion, something that offers meaning by the end of the trail.

In an essay, the writer decides from the outside. In improv, the group decides from within.

An essay is open to editing — at least until publication. Running improv scenes in the park, I suppose, is the equivalent to the early drafts of a writing piece, with the eventual performance as publication.

As a high school journalism teacher, I used to tell my students that writing an essay is something like choosing a sandwich at a smorgasbord. The top bun must be attractive, or no one will pick it up/read it. Each successive layer — lettuce, tomato, bacon, cheese, patty, pickle — must have a purpose and must add to the taste, or the diner/reader goes no further. Finally, the bottom layer of bun must hold everything together, or the whole effort falls apart.

In writing, after the lead paragraph, the contents could be a chronology of events, a series of examples, some anecdotes … The ending must then resonate with the reader if the effort is to have meaning.

In the theater, in this case improv theater, the performance of the first actor triggers the response of the second, which then leads into the third, and so on. I wondered, “How is the ending arrived at? How do they know when to stop? Is a general framework set out? Is one actor suddenly inspired with an ending? Does the group have a ‘closer’?”

On my bicycle ride the following Monday, I stopped at the Theater in the Open headquarters at the other end of the park to ask just that. It was a busy registration scene for the start of a youth camp, but I was directed to the young man in charge.

“You just feel it,” he replied to my question as to the ending. “It’s called a ‘button.’”

At which point he was drawn away to a more pressing matter. Sensing a “button” to this conversation, I resumed my ride.

As I mulled this over, it occurred to me that I would also have a challenging time in explaining to the uninitiated how to end a piece of writing. With experience, the writer just knows.

I was reminded of a comment by a former teaching colleague, the head of the art department at my old school: “At some point you have to decide that your piece is done.”

Again, that is a judgment call by the creator. The work is done. Time to move on to something else.

Which raises the question, why do writers write, actors act or artists create in their chosen medium? Is it for personal satisfaction? Is it a desire for connection to others? Why write if no one reads? Why act if no one attends the performance? Why create art if no one sees it?

I suppose there’s some inner satisfaction in creating in isolation. For some, that may be enough or even all that’s wanted. At the other extreme would be those who crave the attention that their work could bring — the fame and fortune.

Whatever the preference, the inspiration evolves from within. It wells up inside until it spills out onto paper, stage or canvas. Then it must stand alone, face the admirer or critic, make the connection to others, capture something in the human spirit. That is the quest for the creative artist, whether in the printed word, the acted scene or the objet d’art.

As my physical restlessness had led me to wander the park that day, my curiosity had led me along a trail of discovery as to what is involved in the creative process — improvisation. And here we’ve arrived at another button.

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Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.