, Newburyport, MA


August 15, 2013

Improvising a work of art


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?

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