Photo credit: Cast of Scenes From the Bathhouse Photo By Luca Ragogna.
By an ensemble member, Adrian Marchuk.
May 3, 2013
Jacks and Jills of All Trades
Often there is well-deserved scorn heaped upon artists who venture outside of their specialties. We roll our eyes at Billy Bob Thornton fronting his blues-rock band The Boxmasters. We cringe at the sight of director Quentin Tarrantino stepping out from behind the camera to deliver another wooden cameo performance. And let us not forget the wincingly terrible acting turns taken by Madonna. And Mariah Carey. And Jessica Simpson. And 50 Cent.
And there’s good reason to mock them. We see a celebrity famous for one art form trying to co-opt another. The attempt reeks of vanity and hubris. We have a good schadenfreude-induced laugh and chalk it up to artistic arrogance. Right?
Well, maybe.But the reality of artistic life isn’t so simple. Great artists often cross boundaries, and artistic disciplines naturally overlap. Leonardo Da Vinci excelled in so many artistic and scientific pursuits that he qualifies as the original Renaissance man. Shakespeare and Shaw were actors and producers as well as playwrights. Noel Coward was a brilliant lyricist, writer, pianist, actor, director, producer…well, the list goes on. And in our own time we see former action star Clint Eastwood directing Oscar-winners and the writing team behind South Park taking home nine Tony Awards for their Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.
I don’t know if our company for Scenes From The Bathhouse has any Da Vincis or Shakespeares in its midst (I can speak for myself and confidently say my talents are enormously more modest). But we are following in their footsteps by hearkening back to a time when an artist’s life could be defined by many different forms of expression, each of which enhanced the other. So our actors offer suggestions for new lyrics, our director gets up and improvises around a new idea. Our stage manager rewrites a problematic monologue and fixes in one pass what had eluded me for three weeks. In this process we all will have a turn at writing, staging, acting, choreographing, and designing. And by spending time in each other’s specialties, we develop more insight into the story we are trying to tell, and the whole project becomes richer.
No artist wants to be a dilettante. And all of us have to choose how we define ourselves, or we end up endlessly hyphenating the tops of our resumes (actor-writer-producer-singer-dancer-director-etc.-etc.-etc.) and boring the crap out of anyone foolish enough to ask, ‘So what do you do?’
Every artist I know practices multiple disciplines. Many of them do it brilliantly. Some less so. But every one of them learns something about their own art form by spending time practicing another. And if you approach the task with enough humility, you might just stumble upon a nugget of greatness.
N.B. – for a truly inimitable crossover work, check out William Shatner’s so-bad-it’s- awesome spoken-word performance of Elton John’s pop song Rocket Man. It is either the best or the worst thing you’ve ever heard.