The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com

Friday, 26 April 2013

Our Need For Narrative

At the moment I’m reading a novel by Michael Frayn called Spies.  I picked it up at a second-hand bookshop on the Thames, in front of the BFI which is a place I love to browse, as only knowing Frayn as a playwright I was curious.

Turning each page in rapid succession I realise Frayn’s novels are every bit as good as his plays.  Spies is a story about the anxieties and adventures of two imaginative boys during the Second World War - the period soberly referred to as ‘The Duration’ - as well as the winding and unwinding of memory and conscience as an older man looks back on a compelling chapter of his boyhood. 

Standing in a street etched deeply in his psyche, and watched over by an unknown boy in a window, Older Stephen pictures Young Stephen (that is, his younger self) sitting for hours and hours in exactly the spot where a pot of geraniums now flourish.  I love his observation:

“I ignore him (the boy at the window).  I go on thinking about that head over there, the one growing out of the geranium pot.  The thing that’s  so difficult to grasp is that it’s the very same head as the one that’s here on my shoulders thinking about it – and yet I’ve still no more idea of what’s going on inside it than the boy behind the curtains has about what’s going on inside my present head.” 

Older Stephen juggles images and recollections, struggling to clarify the memory of himself hiding endlessly in a privet hedge (aka a secret WWII lookout) with the same fogginess Young Stephen struggles to comprehend current events and childish imaginings:

“Most of the time you don’t go around thinking that things are so or not so, any more than you go around understanding or not understanding them.  You take them for granted.” 

It is this undiagnosed habit of ‘taking things for granted’ which interests his older self, as he can see how many times his youthful self should have stopped to ask ‘why’.  Older Stephen is also intrigued by his ability to take disparate incidents and perceptions, rooted or not rooted in fact, and join the dots.  That is, file a story in his mind, a story which inevitably becomes a belief, whether or not it is fully logical or fair. 

In a complex weave of subtle elements, Frayn, through the voice of Older Stephen, suggests we all have an innate desire to settle “the shifting thoughts” in our heads… the “sticky mess” of confusion and discomfort… so as to make sense of our experience.  Indeed one of the reasons the novel is so illuminating, is because it is driven by the human, but fallible, desire to make an inner narrative, a truth, out of a straggly collection of events and judgements.  And by a seemingly universal tendency for personal narratives to take on a life of their own… so it often seems too late to go back… too late to reframe or question… too late (or perhaps painful) to bring an examiner’s light to the presumptions and actions already taken by ourselves and others… however objectively incomplete that narrative (or judgement) may have become. 

Of course there are many purely positive reasons why narrative is important, indeed crucial, as a tool for life and art.  I haven’t finished the novel yet, so I expect to be further surprised by what Older Stephen sees in Young Stephen; or learns from the juxtaposition of present rationale and post judgement.  What strikes me already, however, is the extent to which playwrights and scriptwriters have humorously played with the repercussions of narrative as a human foible. 

Take Frayn’s own theatrical hit, Noises Off: conscious and unconscious, intended and unintended consequences flow when a set of characters are intent on keeping up appearances, are determined to maintain a particular narrative no matter how many ludicrous events occur because of that dogged determination.  The confusion and hilarity of Oscar Wilde’s ‘bunburying’ in The Importance of Being Earnest comes from a similar source; as does much of the posturing and improvisation by Basil in Fawlty Towers.  

For, in a dramatic piece of work, when people have an overly desperate need to force things to conform to their practical or psychological interpretation, to prolong a narrative, however reasonably or unreasonably constructed, it is easy to identify and laugh at the human bind. 

It takes a writer of Frayn’s skill, however, to gently and painstakingly prize open a character’s psychology to illuminate this same tendency in a person’s more personal story; in a human-being’s subconscious, even as the inner narrative is being formed. 

For reasons I can’t explain, while reading the novel I have been transported in my narrative back to Italy.  I am seeing a little old man driving a small silver van.  He is coming toward a closed gate at the top of a hill, past bountiful cypress trees in the middle of Tuscan countryside.  I see him often, and every time I shake my head in disbelief.  For this little guy pulls the van up in front of our fence, gets out and opens two sides of a large heavy gate, then gets back in and drives a hundred metres through a garden before pulling up again and doing the same with another iron gate of similar proportions.  He then leaves the gates open, much to the annoyance of tenants, and continues on the white chalky road a little before turning left and finishing the journey in his own driveway. 

The reason this scene, repeated as often as a Pavlov's dog experiment, is so ridiculous - is that the apartments, garden and pool between these gates are on private property.  When the Commune gave permission for the owner to renovate and extend the buildings, they compelled him to put another road, of similar quality, immediately around the top periphery of the hill, so residents on the other side of the incline wouldn’t be inconvenienced.  He duly did and that road is always kept well graded and accessible even in the middle of winter.  This little guy, however, seeks to enforce his right to use the ‘old access way’, despite there being a far more convenient alternative immediately before him - such is his staunch determination to prolong the narrative in his head which says “the landowner should not have been given permission by the Commune to make any changes to the road and I refuse to accept it”.  

I used to get a great kick out of watching this guy get out of his car in pouring rain and snow in order to maintain justice as he saw it, for I figured he only had himself to blame if he caught his death of cold for being so bloody minded.  Well, ninety percent of the time I found it funny, until one day when I left my car in front of one of the gates for five minutes (rushing back inside to grab something I’d forgotten) which resulted in the old guy turning up and giving me an unexpectedly aggressive telling-off.  “Use the other road, you fool” I wanted to say, “it’s only three metres to your right and you’re making a huge drama out of nothing”… but in the heat of the moment, and with the noise of his incessant car horn, I couldn’t find the right Italian words so I simply waved my arms with commensurate passion and swore back at him.

The confrontation aside, I’m sure my point is clear: it’s hilarious to see exaggerated examples of desperate ‘hanging on’ to narrative, to one reality, if faced with obvious evidence of other or better interpretations.  It’s like banging your head on a brick wall and hoping by the time you stop the provocation which got you started has gone away.

But a clever writer like Frayn leaves readers wondering: when do each of us hang on to inner narratives and perceptions which serve no long-term beneficial purpose?  And how often do we, or others, prolong a psychological narrative with heavy justification in order to make ourselves feel better; possibly at the expense of someone else?  I have no idea, of course, if that was Frayn’s intended message in the novel.  There are other themes.  Yet the wonderful value in a work of artistic depth and quality - whether literature, theatre or the fine arts – is that it touches our humanity, raising questions and reflections which might otherwise never surface.  

And having said that, I now need to get back to the book, I want to know how Spies ends.  

I’m hooked on the narrative.  





Sunday, 21 April 2013

Ever been to Jersey?

Have you ever been to Jersey?  I mean really to Jersey… not just drive through presuming you know what it has (or doesn’t have) to offer?

I’m not talking about the island. Or the cows.  I mean New Jersey; the place just out of shot in many films and sitcoms.  

As far as I can tell, all most people know of Jersey is Newark Airport and the tunnel drive from Hoboken to Manhattan; the town made famous by the birth of Frank Sinatra.  Big fans realize other Jersey greats include Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Queen Latifah, Bon Jovi and Count Basie, but outside America or the county border few will know much more. 

The same could be said about Jersey Boys, the musical.  I’m an avid theatre goer. I love musicals.  I see much of what comes out.  Yet it took me until a little over a week ago to get to the Prince Edward Theatre (one of the West End’s nicest venues and the Delfont Mackintosh flagship) to see the show which has been running the best part of five years. 

Why?  Well, I was living in Italy when it opened so I missed a lot of the hype.  I have seen a lot of retrospectives about rock stars and genre-specific-musicals.  I’ve been in them too.  So, to be frank, I figured it could wait.  Then as time went on, and I came and went from London to Firenze, Sydney to London, where there’s always so much on offer, I never quite got around to it.  I was also a bit like one of the writers of this hit production, Rick Elice, who Mark Shenton humorously reports in the programme notes was originally more familiar with the Baroque suite than the twentieth-century rock group with the same name.  Many in the audience the night I saw the show must have been guilty of the same ignorance, for we laughed at the joke about the other Four Seasons; made all the more effective, by not mentioning Vivaldi by name.  

Yet the thing about Jersey Boys, written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, director Des McAnuff, and choregrapher Sergio Trujillo, is that you get far more than what it ‘says on the box’ - far more than a linear retrospective and collection of old songs.   You get to live and breathe the road the four boys took from Jersey, gig to gig, hope to hope, cock-up to cock-up, victory to victory, as they built and worked to maintain the group which became the Four Seasons and, later, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. 

Whatever your age, the familiarity and quality of the music led by Dan Wilkinson will surprise you. The quantity and pace is impressive too, weaved effortlessly into the fabric of the piece. Yet the writers, creative team, performers and band do far more than tip their hats to a musical legend – with compelling honesty and empathy, they uncover and explore for the audience the many elements of character and circumstance which had to be overcome and juggled to attain professional success… the hard work and sacrifices, the drama and heartbreak, in effect, the price which had to be paid by these four men and those who loved them in order to attain relative security…  long before they reached legendary status or found personal reward.  In this, Jersey Boys is first and foremost a play, a piece of drama served and embellished by tightly-packed music and movement, and I loved its commitment to going deeper than I, or perhaps many, had expected.

This brings me back to the ‘real Jersey’: the large county some will know from work in, or association with, the many industries whose head offices flourish in Orange County.  My cousin was the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company based in the attractive upper central part of Jersey, so I’ve seen the large houses, cultivated lawns and huge swimming pools of the business men and women who happily live and work there, playing golf, making deals, jogging through parks and forests, before tripping off to Manhattan to pursue all manner of other entertainments.  Wonderful hosts they all were too from memory… one chap unveiling at a party a surprise birthday present for his wife… a Mercedez sports.  Well, that’s not something you’re likely to forget, right?!

My Jersey visits weren’t all elegant.  I also hung out in suburban, middle-class Trenton, where I found the locals polite, friendly and well educated, and the houses in tree-lined streets surprisingly large and furnished with enormous American basements.  (Seriously, I’ve known five students to live in smaller spaces than my friend had for mere storage, heating pipes and laundry.)  Were the intellectual and artistic characters I met in Trenton fuelled by their commuter-belt-proximity to New York?  Certainly the grand pianos I found myself leaning on were surrounded by people who were not only educated, talented and intellectually nuanced (on a broad range of topics), but well stocked with show tunes and ready to perform.  So how could I complain when a first class road and the Hoboken tunnel were the only things separating us from Broadway?

I admit this is just my experience.  And as you’ll learn from Jersey Boys, if you make the wise decision to go, every story can be told from multiple angles and quite varied perception.  Over the course of the evening you will hear episodes in the life of the Four Seasons introduced and explained by Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, each bringing to it their own colour and individuality, their own version of ‘the truth’.  Along with exceptionally well-arranged songs and choreography, it is this dramatic aspect, the soulful, searching aspect of Jersey Boys which is so satisfying.

And now I remember why I have such a positive memory of Jersey: because when I was there in 1998 I had the immense pleasure of attending Lilith Fair – the enormous summer music festival produced by the gifted Sarah McLachlan to honour and present female musicians and band-leaders to the rock-loving world while raising significant funds for north American women’s charities.  In every sense Lilith Fair was a spectacular experience – the most relaxed and friendly bonhomie of any outdoor music festival I’ve attended, multiple stages, maximum sunshine, shorts and t-shirts, splashing water and laughter (to deal with the heat which ultimately resulted in wet t-shirts), girl power in the audience, and female greats on the same stage such as Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow; and Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Sinéad O’Connor to name a few.  It was an unequalled social and musical celebration, working on so many levels - allowing us to identify with one-another, celebrate that commonality, and feel fantastic about ourselves.

And that’s what I got out of Jersey Boys too, an unexpectedly intimate and meaningful encounter, where we all left the theatre satisfied and humming.  For me it was:

        You're just too good to be true
        Can't take my eyes off of you
        You'd be like heaven to touch
        I wanna hold you so much…

While one of my friends was singing:

       My eyes adored you
      Though I never laid a hand on you
       My eyes adored you
       Like a million miles away
       From me you couldn’t see
       How I adored you
      So close, so close
      And yet so far…

‘Cause like the Four Seasons you’ll each get your own story out of Jersey.



à         www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk  

à         www.jerseyboyslondon.com 

        à         www.ryanmolloy.com   (plays Frankie Valli in London)

       à         www.jonleeofficial.com   (plays Frankie Valli in London)

       à         www.eddpost.co.uk  (plays Bob Gaudio in London)

       à         www.jonboydon.com  (plays Tommy DeVito in London)

à         www.gameforfame.co.uk  (plays Nick Massi in London)



Monday, 15 April 2013

Uncomfortable Bedfellows

Perseverance and contentment are important qualities in a full and happy life.  Yet oftentimes they seem like uncomfortable bedfellows.  

Take an actor, for example.  He or she must be ambitious; must be always looking for the next opportunity to grow in their craft, improve their skills, secure the next role.  They have to be prepared to move around, change cities or countries, and be apart from loved ones if that is what the work requires.  They must overcome all manner of rejection, fluctuating status, financial instability, and the challenge (economically and mentally) of extended ‘rest periods’.   If they weren’t persistent, and come to that, brave, they simply would not last.

Even when an actor (singer, dancer, writer, artist) ‘gives it up’, making a decision to use their skills elsewhere so, more reliably, they can have some of the other things life offers… they rarely leave the industry before they’ve shown incredible persistence in the face of difficulty.  Persistence is the 101 of the entertainment and cultural sector, where even the top lucky five percent will have their turn to topple off the ladder.

There is an old saying in showbiz: “you’re only as good as your last performance”.  It breeds in artists a hope, a belief, that the best is always ahead of them… a hunger to not just maintain their craft and professionalism but to grow until they reach greater heights.  Ask any actor, director, writer, singer, film-maker, choreographer and you’ll hear the same story… for evident in many people in ‘the business’ is a common combination of: persistence, optimism, insecurity, and a forever-young-Peter-Pan complex.  And once this ‘drug’ or ‘drive’ is absorbed it is hard to get out of the system. 

That’s why I love being around creative people.  They understand what it’s like to spend most of their life out on a limb, of sorts, and often they develop a sense of humour and perspective which is commensurate. 

Of course success in many endeavours requires persistence and self-belief – never more so than when the time lag between exerted effort and reward is prolonged.  Take for example,scientists doing research, athletes training before they make (or don’t make) it to the Olympics, and anyone involved in a start-up business venture.

Day-to-day life requires persistence to get through all manner of emotional and practical difficulties.  Many face far more than their fair share of hurdles or loss and should be respected for their resilience.  As Ben Affleck said at the Oscars recently (I paraphrase): the measure of a person is not how many times he or she falls down but how many times he or she gets up. 

People in the creative industries are not alone but their continual exposure to the vagaries of employment and professional status does make for a special case.  How then does persistence (when necessarily accompanied by ambition) sit beside the inner need for contentment?   If, as artists, we are always chasing the next project, always put in a situation where we must prove ourselves, does that put us at odds with the discovery of contentment?

I think sometimes it does… unless we are careful, and unless we make an effort to frame our life, our efforts, goals and thinking, in a broader light.  

In a second we can all bring to mind conversations we’ve had with fellow artists about our frustrations – wanting this or that audition, role, director, agent, publisher, increased arts funding… the list goes on.  I distinctly remember making a decision to go back to university and move across into arts management because I did not want to “reach my 40s and be sitting at a BBQ complaining about my agent”.   I’d heard it too many times and I didn’t want to be defined or limited by that feeling of powerlessness… the feeling that anonymous sentinels were standing between me and my next opportunity.   “If only I could get in the door…” we’d all say…

Some of that frustration is very real, but actually should be less now we have such free access to information on the internet.   It is also a part of the bargain we make with ourselves when we choose to put our time and energy into an industry which is immensely challenging but also immensely rewarding.  For if there isn’t conscious acceptance of these difficulties, as an inevitable and rarely personal aspect of our job, then it can really get you down. 

Of course it’s natural to get tired of it sometimes, to need a break or a bit of upside energy from elsewhere, but if the persistent and ambitious dimension of our industry is not acknowledged (and managed), artists risk missing some of their lives, missing some of life’s wonderful richness, because we get so busy ‘chasing the next prize’ there is a danger we are not living sufficiently in the moment – in the moment where there is likely much to be thankful for, much to be appreciated, and a world of other possibilities and topics of interest.    

These comments are probably more applicable to the younger members of our industry, for hopefully age brings a little wisdom with the wrinkles.  Yet it can trip anyone up.

Recently I caught up with a good actor/dancer who, in order to more reliably establish and support a family, had moved away from the roller-coaster of touring and auditions to establish a high-quality dance and drama school, and I asked him whether he felt content with his choice.  I expected him to say he found day-to-day life easier, more peaceful… because he was no longer ‘chasing the next job’.  However he said he found the routine, the predictability, something of a grind… but that he was content with the bigger-picture… having bought his own home and ensuring he had weekends free with his family and time to be there for his children’s school concerts. 

I guess we can all feel impatient about the daily grind, whatever we do to pay the bills, and no-one who knows the demands of an eight show week, week in week out, could ever say it was all beer and skittles.  It’s hard work. 

So perhaps contentment is a state of mind, a perspective on what we ‘do’ or ‘have’ rather than a ‘place to arrive’? 

Maybe we don’t find contentment through resignation (through letting go of ambition) but through consciousness… consciousness that we are choosing to be a part of a wonderful but challenging industry (in whatever capacity)… and thankfulness that we have the talent and drive to take part, to be enthused, and to prioritise our greatest love.   Indeed thankfulness is a cure for all sorts of ills.

If so contentment is less about what we do… in work, out of work, in the business, out of the business, good part, boring part… than about realizing inner peace comes through struggling less against what we don’t (yet) have… and acknowledging it is a ‘state of being’ we can attain, with the right perspective, no matter how many auditions or rejections we face.

Nevertheless I have always thought the best part of making it through multiple auditions to win a role is the moment your agent phones to tell you you’ve been successful.  I love rehearsals, the adrenalin of opening night, and being in a production where nightly you can hone the subtleties of the part you’re playing.  Yet the high is never quite so satisfying as the euphoria when you have done your thing to the best of your ability and discover you have been chosen above other worthy competitors.  For a showbiz addict it’s the best feeling of being wanted there is!  (Well, unless Johnny Depp or Liam Neeson were to turn up on my doorstep.)

And that was why I couldn’t understand so many lampooned Sally Field at the Oscars years back, for saying “you like me, you like me…”, when I thought she was adorable for being so frank and honest about the ‘race’ which she finally felt she had won.  

We do ‘put ourselves out there’, again and again, and persistence is key.  But we don’t have to let insecurity destabilise self-love or self-acceptance, any more than artistic ambition should exclude interest in other aspects of life. 

So perhaps persistence and contentment don’t have to be uncomfortable bedfellows.  We just need to wrestle the pillows a bit until we find a sensible balance. 


Sunday, 14 April 2013

Welcome to Blog Julie Arts

Welcome to Blog Julie Arts, a spin-off from the blog I’ve written for nearly a year called There’s Always A Story.   

There’s Always A Story sits in blogger and is followed via www.blogjulie.com    It contains stories on a range of topics, united essentially by curiosity and the love of a good yarn.  

Today I’m launching a new blog, Blog Julie Arts to focus my interest in, and passion for, the arts.  I am not a critic.  I write arts-related stories as a practitioner, a consumer and commentator, reflecting on the way the arts intersects with and enriches life.  By ‘arts’ I don’t just mean drama or theatre, but music, opera, dance, comedy, film, writing, literature, painting, sculpture, museums, galleries, photography, architecture, art history and anything and everything in the creative industries.    

To kick off I’ve loaded some arts-related posts from There’s Always A Story.  You’ll find the links on the side.

Whether strolling through the Uffizi, the Louvre or the National Gallery, whether enjoying the Royal Opera House, the West End or the Fringe, you are sure to find my interests are as broad as there are possibilities – which, thankfully in the arts, are endless.   

See you soon at www.blogjuliearts.com