ADVENTURES IN YES

Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.

January 19, 2018

ADVENTURES IN YES: "It Was Thirty Years Ago Today"

Some infinite love and gratitude for the first three decades of a dream come true.

The HMS boys at Camp Nebagamon, where it all began

HMS Media turns 30 years old today.

30 years!

It’s quite a feeling to be 53 and find one’s self in the same job, much less the same career, much less continuing to co-run a company with a best friend from summer camp.

Someone recently remarked how proud summer-camp-best-friend Matt Hoffman and I must be. The resume does look pretty good: 30 Years. 20 Emmys. Loads of PBS specials. Thousands of shoots with Chicago dance, music and theater companies. Hundreds of projects with Broadway shows and national tours. Scores of major media initiatives with amazing not-for-profits and educational institutions advancing art, science and social service.

It has been and continues to be a hell of a run, and it’s not that we’re not proud of it. We are. But the overwhelming feeling, honestly, is one of humility.

This isn’t false modesty. We’re just kind of… amazed. It’s hard to be anything but wonderstruck that we still get to do what we love with people we love.

“Lucky” doesn’t begin to cover it.

More than twenty years ago, John Kander (the legendary composer of such Broadway shows as “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” as well as official HMS mentor and Nicest Man in The World) told us that for all of the hits, accolades and awards he has received during his career (including a shelf full of Tony Awards), he is convinced that it’s on his next show that people will finally figure out that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

It took me a while to unpack his words. I’m still unpacking them, actually. It’s not that I don’t get it. For all of the wonderful stuff we’ve experienced over the last three decades, I am still filled with deep anxiety when new projects arise. I am in those moments comforted by two things: the talents of the people around me, and the fact that they all feel this way too.

I first interpreted John’s comment about not knowing what he’s doing as a simple expression of humility. It certainly was that, and if it were only that, it would stand as remarkably generous notion to share with young people just learning how to make and share their work. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate that it was also – perhaps even more so – a reminder of the importance of staying present.

“Not knowing what I’m doing” doesn’t mean “I don’t know what I’ve done” or “I won’t be able to do this.” It doesn’t mean “I’m ignorant” and it doesn’t mean “I’m doomed.” It simply means that in this present moment, I don’t know how this is going to turn out.

Of course not. No one, not the most accomplished composer, baseball player, surgeon, Uber driver, janitor, waiter, pilot or politician does. If they think they do… they’re in trouble, and so is every person depending on them.

“Knowing,” it turns out, isn’t unimportant at all times, but it’s overrated. “Being present” is the goal, and all we need to do to get there is take the big chance and make the bold choice.

Simple enough.

Also terrifying.

So how do you make it enjoyable and productive, let alone turn it into a career or a lifestyle? You surround yourself with people you trust. People who are as smart as you are (and, ideally, smarter). People who know how to disagree without being disagreeable. People who understand that as frightening as taking new chances may be, people usually don’t die when they make them.

That’s not meant as glib as it might sound; fear is fear, and it’s never pleasant. But in the words of Yoda – or as he’s better known, the John Kander of The Jedi – “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” More recently he’s been heard to utter, “Failure the greatest teacher is.” He was right both times. My best and most cherished role models consistently practice these ideas both on and offstage, in public and at home.

They are the “Yes And” people. And is there any better ethic to follow than “Yes And?” Any better philosophy than to call on yourself to agree wherever possible? To build relationships? To heighten possibilities and explore new processes? To make others look good while expecting that others will do the same for you? To avoid attachments to individual specific outcomes, and explore those that we could never have imagined ourselves but which wind up being possible in the company of others? To find the words “I,” “me” and “mine” much less interesting than “We,” “us” and “ours”?

HMS and Friends have been honored to work with thousands of “Yes And” practitioners over the years. Whether lasting an hour or for decades, each collaboration has changed us for the better, allowing us to learn more while inviting us to “know less.”

Matt and I are surrounded by these people every day, and I’d like to make sure you know their names. It begins for us with our extraordinary core team of John Ford, Kristin Klinger, Catherine Haremski and Christie Fall. Whether behind a camera, on location, behind a writing desk or in an edit suite, these inspired artists make us smarter than we were the day before and HMS’ work more beautiful than we ever could have imagined.

The same can be said of our incredible freelancers. Shoot after shoot, edit after edit, these independent creatives broaden our horizons and challenge our preconceptions. Thank you Joe Lukawski, Greg Stasevsky, Jenny Conway, Tom Szklarski, Todd Clark, Erin Carey, Tom McCosky, Tom Bergin, Dave Sperling, John Christianson, Matt Mayer, Ken Dabek, Aren Viramontes, Andre Shane, Chris Seivard, Eli Alanis, Jillian Weimer, Howard Heitner, Phil Iglesias, Bennett Spencer, Margaret Nelson, Timothy Powell, Andrew Twiss, Cindy Surman, Erin Steilan, Marshaun Robinson, the entire team at TC Furlong and all the other wonderful talents with whom we’ve worked over the years. And Danielle Beverly, Lisa Levin, Laura Brauer, Danny Romain, Josh Jones, Greg Steinbrecher, Lauren Thompson, Lauren Teng, Joe Moese and Aly Quigley… we miss you!

We’re also feeling especially grateful to our mentors, who have been so generous with their experience and knowledge, and have helped us learn to make our way in a very tricky world. In addition to John Kander, there’s Donna LaPietra, Bill Kurtis, Mike Leiderman, Thea Flaum, Rick Elice and dear departed friends like Bill McCarter, Roy Leonard and Sheldon Patinkin. And from the beginning, there’s always been “the Captain” (you know who you are).

And Yoda. We’d be nowhere without Yoda.

Finally, there is literally no way to list every artist, arts organization, management team, press rep, marketing company, design firm, school or tech company with whom we’ve worked these last thirty years who have opened the world to us and made this life of ours possible. To all of you, please know that you daily provide us with the heat, mass and gravity around which we orbit. You give us reason, purpose and inspiration. Through your friendship and confidence, you make our world feel more intimately connected; through your vision and your discoveries, you make our world more thrillingly vast. You are the reason we aspire to “Yes And.”

I’ll leave you with another John Kander story. Last summer, shortly after we’d produced “First You Dream,” a national PBS tribute to the songs of Kander & Ebb, we sat down to a pre-production meeting for another project, at which John said something genuinely and startlingly lovely: that it was in the last five minutes or so of his most recent show “Kid Victory” that he felt he was finally – FINALLY -- starting to get to the core of the truth of what he’s always wanted to say as an artist.

Not for nothing, but John turns 91 in two months. Clearly, the work is never done, which is both its most daunting and joyful quality. This is a wonderful lens through which we can look at where we’ve been and where we’re going.

As for where we’ve been:

From time to time we do enjoy looking back…. at our summer camp days (ask us sometime to show you those old 8mm movies of us as teens in the Camp Nebagamon version of “Beatlemania,” when Matt was Ringo and I was John). At the day we planted our flag here in Chicago, terrified but thrilled. At making our broadcast premiere by creating what we’re told was the first broadcast documentary about survivors of rape and sexual assault. At the early days we spent cultivating the relationships with Chicago’s music, theater and dance companies. At the WTTW and PBS specials. At those first nights on Broadway. At the countless opportunities we’ve been given to bring a dazzling array of artists, social issues and cultural ambassadors to television and computer screens, and add to the world just a bit more beauty than it had before.

As for where we’re going:

We reject outright the premise of the question, “where do you see yourself in five years.” That’s a question people ask to make themselves feel better, but it’s a dead end – anyone who answers that question definitively is either indulging the interviewer or making something up. Like everyone else, we don’t know for sure where we’re going. But that never stopped us before and it won’t stop us now. What we do know – the only thing we know – is that we’re in for the long haul. We just want to keep getting better. Trying new things. Taking even bigger risks. Pursuing new content initiatives for every kind of screen imaginable. Collaborating on new work with our fellow artists, advocates, activists and ambassadors. Becoming more thoughtful, responsive and diverse, in every way possible. Rising to our best possible occasions.

Have these first thirty years filled us with infinite love and gratitude?

“Yes.”

As for the next thirty?

“And…”

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