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When artists go bad (part 2)

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2007-09-07


Failure is inevitable to all artists, and unfortunately most arenít able to destroy the evidence of their most notorious works. Every artist has that one, wince-inducing memoryó the terrible performance, the disastrous opening, the idiotic design ó that they can never get out of their mind. Learning to deal with the consequences of failure is necessary for the artist to develop, but it sure isnít any fun. I asked a number of Fort Wayne artists to look back in horror at their worst moments in the arts, and they agreed to dredge up the ugliness. For them I give my thanks but also, this heartening reminder: Only the mediocre are always at their best.


Frank Bougher, sculptor: My first free standing nude male was a half scale in size, only I did not realize how to move from armature to completed work. I have discovered I need both distance and time during projects yet I jumped from one area to another, making for ready disaster. Haste makes waste and that is exactly what I createdĖa hundred pound plaster chuck of bronze fecal matter somewhat resembling a human with short legs and an elongated torso. .

Sculpting is unforgiving, you have to think about the details and how they are depicted even on the underside where someone is always sure to look. And, when completed, every mistake becomes blatantly visible. And it is much more difficult to hide a voluminous elephant turd than to shelve on overworked piece of paper. I put it out for the garbage men.
A month later, walking past another home, I see a newly installed lawn ornament in all its awful glory. Over the next three years it became a daily reminder of my shortcomings as I watched it slowly melt from the elements, but never eroding fast enough.

Jack Cantey, writer, photographer: When the topic of failure is brought up I instantly think of a poorly designed ó and even more poorly executed ó project a close friend and I conceived shortly after 9/11. Collaborating with your friends is a beautiful ideal. What is better than creating a work of art with people you deeply care about? Working with friends, however, can also lead to disaster. In this case, we were both too friendly with each other ó neither of us took off our "friend hat" and challenged the other like all collaborators must. We also mastered the key to most substantial failures: indecision. We never really made a decision about what the performance would be, and it was a painful experience. Paaaaaaainful. After the (thank God) sole performance, I crawled into a ball underneath a table and just rocked back and forth. It was brutal. That said, though, my friendship with my collaborator is stronger than ever and he has had quite a bit of success as a producer and director. We both learned quite a lot about the process of creating a piece from scratch and, fortunately, have not repeated the errors from that debacle six years ago.


Jeff Moore, actor, director: I was in a production of David Mametís Mr. Happiness at IU Bloomington, back in 1994. Itís a one-man short play about an old-time radio therapist who answers letters over the air. Mr. Happiness was a half-hour teaser for the second production on the bill (Waiting for Lefty, the great 30's play about workersí struggles.) The director cast me in a competitive audition and then immediately took issue with every choice I made as an actor. It was her second-year graduate project as well as mine and we were both under some pressure. I was resentful. I flailed. I stunk. I still wince thinking about it. You know what I learned? Donít do one-man shows unless you trust the director with your privates.

John Sandmaier, designer, production technician: At IPFW I had some mild success designing the set of Boys in the Band so I took on Mame as a challenge, perhaps overconfidently, perhaps to challenge myself to find a decent solution for the problematic multi-location settings on a thrust.

Everything was wrong. Awful. Initially I tried to justify what was happening by blaming it on a lack of help in the scene shop. But later I would conclude that more help would have simply realized a more fully fleshed-out piece of crap. It was all on me. What I had on paper, and in my head, seemed to be a fine direction to go. As I started on production, the foundation of the set felt fine. Everything that had to do with creating the multiplicity of the sets, however, was horrifyingly NOT fully realized. I felt rushed. I was trying to produce things without designing them, which is a talent I absolutely do not have. And it showed. Anyway, it is all somewhat of a blur now, but we get to the end result, which was a marvelously crappy set. Everyone knew it. But no one knew it as well as I. I was depressed. I was chagrined. I was not my fatherís son. Ultimately, I felt guilty for letting down a proud theater department.

Orene Colcord, producer, costume designer: The first show I designed in grad school, a production of Allís Well that Ends Well, was assigned to me in late September, with the production going up in November. The director was an English professor who loved drama but didnít know anything about theater. He spoke the words that as a costume designer I dreaded: "The costumes will have to be the set." I had a budget of $50 dollars and a really bad attitude. The director agreed with each and every idea I presented and I sallied forth radiating what I thought was confidence and a collaborative spirit but was perceived as arrogance and know-it-all attitude.

The show was pretty horrible. I donít know that my costumes were any better or worse than the rest of the production. I donít remember much about the rest of that quarter or the winter quarter. What I really remember was going back to school after spring break and finding a letter from the head of my department. In that letter was a detailed and extended list of every single thing I had done since September that indicated that I was not an appropriate candidate for graduation from the department. I had bad work habits, substandard skills at the drawing table and the sewing machine, and a negative attitude that was damaging my relationship with every member of the costume shop.

I folded the letter and put it in the file of school stuff, where it is today. I went into the department headís office the next day and asked him why he hadnít mentioned any of these problems earlier in the school year. I was calm, reasonable, self-effacing, apologetic. I felt that I had caught him off guard and that I had more control of the situation than he did. Truthfully I do not recall his answer. I graduated from the program a year later.
Where I failed was in understanding. I did not understand that the letter was intended to embarrass and humiliate me to the point where I would just go away. I was supposed to wad the letter up, throw it away and go back to waiting tables or tending bar. The most stupefying expression of my boneheadedness? I maintain relationships with him and the other members of the costume shop to this day. I donít get that they donít want anything at all to do with me.

Brian Wagner, actor, director: I was cast one summer as Jonathan Brewster, the Boris Karloff role in Arsenic and Old Lace at IPFW. Larry tried to wring as much comedy out of the role as possible, but Jonathan is essentially the straight man and is inherently not funny. I was also wearing a leg brace, had one crippled hand and walked with a cane for the role. I was working opposite a woman who I was supposed to intimidate who happened to be about 6'3. Iím 5'10. Everything that could go wrong on opening night did. I gestured with my cane in a sweeping motion that took a lit cigar right out of an actorís mouth and sent it sailing into the audience. My cane snapped in two when I wedged into a doorway, trying to subdue the Amazonian actress, and Jonathan was miraculously healed for the rest of the performance. I had no energy at all, and the more I tried to push myself, the more maniacally I ran around the stage like a crazy person. Of course, this was in the good old days when the Fort Wayne newspapers sent out reviewers on opening night. I have a copy of it somewhereĖSharon Little said something to the effect that I was simply lousy in the role and did nothing but chew up the scenery. I couldnít argue her point at all.

Kay Gregg, musician, graphic designer: I went to work everyday, wearing the same clothes I wore the day before. I had pink hair, I had big boots, I had a bad attitude. I worked in the deli department of a natural foods cooperative. I was surrounded by the dregs of leftover hippie society, the bitter kind that didnít make it to the meccas and were now trying to twist a community into caring. I hated it. I stood at the counter and made sandwiches. On the counter was a radio, and the radio played the oldies station. After being bombarded ceaselessly with hit after hit, I started listening to the songs critically. It was like a code. The songs had formulas. If I could just figure out what the formula for pop tunes that were universally loved, I could apply the code to my own songs. I listened to the same 75 songs over and over until patterns started to emerge. I started bringing a notebook to work with me, I broke the songs into categories, subcategories, I argued with myself over the borderline cases. My notebook filled up and I studied it while on break, thought about it in the shower and on my way home.

I thought that if I found the perfect formula, I wouldnít have to put an ounce of myself into any song, ever again. Plug in some random thought, out pops a perfect song that says everything I want to say without putting myself on the line. I loved it, I wanted it to work. I just needed the perfect framework to hang the song formulas on.

Then one day, I found it. I heard a song from my past, a hit that was outside of the oldies classification, but was still a classic. It was perfect, it hit all the pre-ordained marks. I immediately starting formulating a plan for an album of work based on the research and that final missing piece. I went to the library and checked out all the CDs by the artist, and I found the one quintessential album and started analyzing how the songs fit together. I called my big project, BSE, or, the Billy Squire Experiment. I didnít even like Billy Squire but damn if that wasnít where this was all heading.

Seven songs were written, each one loosely based on a corresponding track from Donít Say No, Squireís seminal 1981 album. Demo-ed on a tacky Fostex 4-track, cheap cassette tape worn thin in places from the taping and retaping of parts, everything just so. The next step was to assemble a band and start performing. Most of the musicians I knew were in the wind, on the road, or too cool for this school, I had to approach strangers with my new invention.

Each session was the same. Iíd explain the process and then gamely start instructing each player how to go about playing each piece. It had to be a dictatorship or it just wouldnít work. They didnít see, nobody saw, only me. It had to be that way. I was a total despot and it wasnít even my music, it was just some idiotic hillside of prefab windmills. The few people I could drum up fled after two practices. I was completely alienated from the world of music I wanted to inhabit and it was all because I thought I could bypass the humanity needed to make meaningful work. That was five years ago, I havenít written a song since.

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