Random thoughts about watching and working in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.
Last weekend, I was on a plane back to Chicago after attending the Americans For The Arts conference. I heard a woman seated behind me say, “It’s not about the destination, Suzanne, it’s about the journey.” Suzanne, who must have been in a really bad mood, responded, “God, Helen, that is such a cliché.” I suppose it is, Suzanne, but like many clichés, it’s a cliché for a reason, and the reason is that it’s true.
The people I like the best and admire the most, cliché-adverse though they may be, are all about the journey. This weekend, Lookingglass Theatre Company opened an ambitious new musical called “Eastland,” a hauntingly beautiful meditation on life and death rooted in the infamous demise of the riverboat which capsized in the Chicago River in 1915, killing more than 800 people (in what would be the single biggest loss-of-life incident on American soil until 9/11). The first preview was a little more than two weeks ago, and what I saw was wonderfully promising. Today I saw it as the critics did last night, after a few weeks of tech and previews, and that wonderfully promising preview version has grown into something so exquisite, so wrenching, so gentle and so gorgeous that I’m going to need to see it a few more times to find a way to describe it to someone in person without tearing up.
It wasn’t just the work itself. I am so humbled and impressed at how reflective, insightful and adventurous the creative and producing team had to have been to get from the first preview to now. Previews are a fascinating time to see a show. Changes are being made to the show daily. Some are minute – the timing of a lighting cue, for example, or a change in blocking. Others are huge – the addition of a new scene, character or song, or, or the subtraction of one. Deciding when and how to make changes, and when to stop – all in the service of telling the best story in the most direct, lean and affecting way possible – are among the biggest gut-checks that creative and production teams ever experience. Sometimes the only thing that stops the process is the arrival of opening night (and even then, most shows, especially new ones, continue to develop and deepen with each performance for quite some time).
I’ve been thinking about process a lot lately (perhaps because HMS just held its annual retreat this week), and I’ve been getting some additional inspiration by listening to recent box set releases of albums by some of my favorite musicians. U2’s 20th anniversary “Achtung Baby” package, Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promise,” and Paul McCartney’s remastered releases (the most recent of which, “Ram,” came out last week) all say a lot to me about process. McCartney, Springsteen and U2 will never be accused of having small egos, but I think these box sets demonstrate that theirs are egos not of arrogant men but rather of supremely confident ones. Arrogant people are afraid of being seen as imperfect; confident people understand that their imperfections inform their work just as much as their strengths, and revel in sharing them with their audiences.
Paul McCartney strikes me as remarkably unselfconscious about letting us see him “warts and all.” For all his pop leanings, McCartney’s a remarkably adventurous artist, perfectly happy to talk cheerfully about what did and didn’t work. The extra tracks on the “Ram” reissue, like those on “McCartney” and “McCartney 2,” are mainly wandering jam sessions, unfinished riffs and half-completed songs. We even get a taste of one of McCartney’s early post-Beatles gig, playing to a small crowd in an unnamed Scandinavian town, with the first incarnation of Wings playing behind him, more than a little out of tune. I doubt I will listen to these tracks more than once or twice, but that’s okay. McCartney’s point seems to be that process is messy, that you have to explore a lot of dead ends and play some wretched gigs before you stand a chance of getting to the good stuff.
Springsteen’s “The Promise,” on the other hand, makes for great listening, especially for an album of outtakes drawn from more than 70 songs he and the E Street Band wrote, rehearsed and recorded at the same time as the songs record-buyers first heard in 1978 as “Darkness On The Edge of Town.” “The Promise” an “alternative universe” album, the one that might have been released had Springsteen been the kind of artist to chase the next hit record by picking up where “Born To Run” left off, instead of releasing the spare, bleak and beautiful “Darkness,” an album that rejected easy hits and instead reflected his feelings about his place in the world as an artist and a man. An artist of lesser integrity might have released a more accessible and predictable record, and set himself on a path to headline in Vegas, sell out concerts around the world, and release new music that no one cares about. But in embracing the “Darkness,” Springsteen established who he was and wanted to be, (much more so more than “Born To Run” did – “Born To Run” may be more fun to listen to, but “Darkness” is the more major and bold declaration). By sharing with us the songs of “The Promise” (which, though it’s a collection outtakes, would be most bands’ greatest-hits-album), Springsteen takes us on the musical road not taken, embracing and ennobling the idea that process is about being brave and making hard decisions.
“Achtung Baby” is the result of journey U2 took into the unknown, to deliberately wipe their slate clean and find out who they really were and could be as a band. The album is rightly acclaimed as one of rock’s greatest and most ambitious; the box set makes it all the more fascinating thanks to the inclusion of a disc called “Kindergarten.” If “Achtung Baby” is U2 in its new full swagger and strut, “Kindergarten” is the band learning how to walk again. The disc is a complete rendering of all the same songs on the final album, but in earlier versions – raw, less polished and less thoughtful. Most bands would kill for “Kindergarten” to be the pinnacle of their career, and “Achtung Baby” in this incarnation would probably have been a hit record. But U2 and its producers felt they hadn’t gone far enough with their grand experiment, so they kept working, fleshing out production ideas, refining the lyrics and concepts, and letting the songs reveal themselves more deeply, all in the service of drawing out more mature, brave and nuanced performances. Half of the great “Achtung Baby” riffs are completely missing from their “Kindergarten” counterparts, and the classic “One,” while still quite moving as a folksy ballad, has yet to find its haunting, disturbing and deeply moving focus. In that sense, it’s a tricky listen. Yet the disc fascinates because it gives us a glimpse of a band that recognized that its mission was only halfway complete – how did they know that? I think the answer is that they didn’t – they simply felt it, and operated on pure instinct and feeling. It’s extraordinarily impressive to me that U2 opted to push their artistic explorations so much farther when they really didn’t have to. To keep pushing forward when you don’t actually know if you’re headed towards glorious heights or ignominious depths is scary stuff. The lesson I take from this is that even though we think we might be done, the process might not be over – actually, the older I get, the more I find this to be the case. “We’re still a work in progress,” I heard Bono say on a bootleg of a concert the band did two years ago in Sheffield, before leading the crowd in singing along to the opening verse of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Amen, brother.
So yes, Helen, fellow passenger on American Airlines flight 3757, Suzanne’s right. Your whole “it’s the journey not the destination” thing is a big, fat, giant, boring, embarrassing cliché. And bless you for saying it out loud anyway. On those days where I can’t get back to see “Eastland,” I’ll think back on your conversation on our airplane, and appreciate the reminder.