Reflections on the unexpected learnings of the Live Arts Brewery By Craig T. Peterson, Philadelphia Live Arts’ Director of the Live Arts Brewery November, 2011
In October the Live Arts Brewery, better known as the LAB began our third year of activity at our home in Northern Liberties. The new Fellows met for the first time to discuss our coming year together, the work that they intend to research and develop and the challenges that artists often encounter in the creative process. While artists often long for this type of opportunity; ample access to space, a bit of seed money and resources, it can also be overwhelming and difficult to navigate a creative process without a concentrated level of planning and some honest consideration of how to activate and sustain a productive and creative process. It’s easy to daydream about how one would use a resource like a LAB Fellowship. It’s an entirely different thing to do it (click here for a PBS video about the LAB from WHYY’s Friday Arts TV series)
When the LAB first began, artists were given large blocks of time in the studio to work, unfettered and continuously. Sounds dreamy, right? But some struggled with what to do with all the time. In a world where creative time is often so sparse, to suddenly be confronted with three weeks of free reign was a shock to the artistic spirit. This became a key point of interest for me when I assumed leadership of the LAB program in 2010. I quickly discovered the difference between “retreat” residencies (those elusive artist colony experiences that allow artists to leave home and retreat into the woods somewhere to indulge in the creative process) and “artist-in-residence” programs where art-making has to be integrated into an artists daily life. Retreat residencies are often meticulously planned excursions into a deep level of creation. They are one or two weeks long, collaborators are brought at specific points to maximize their contributions to the process and artists plan each day well in advance in an effort to use this concentrated time to build and construct a work. Many of the daily grind activities of home are left behind to allow for dreams and hard work to intersect.
But what of the in-town, extended residencies? Even when the space is cheap or free, even with a stipend or any number of resources, how does one make use of such opportunities? After all, the laundry still needs washing, the fridge needs filling and the kids have to be picked by 4pm. How does an artist get the work done?
Artists are resourceful by nature. They have to be. But that doesn’t mean that programs like the LAB can’t participate in helping artists to navigate the challenges that some positive opportunities pose. First, it’s important for artists to identify their own best habits for productivity. Do they like to work intensively for two days or two weeks? Or do they need a few four hour rehearsals each week? It’s easy to think that working for a week with collaborators will be nothing but productive. But what happens when an artist is actually in the studio, confronted with various collaborators who are awaiting creative direction? Ensemble work involves multiple people and various layers of activity and instruction. Choreographers and directors do not work with paint and canvas, they work with people and personalities. And don’t forget that these collaborators also have jobs to get to, kids to care for and rent to pay. Creative priorities are often at the mercy of other people. This is part of a process that is unique to ensemble work. A painter does not have to contend with the color blue needing to leave rehearsal early or the color green being in a particularly bad mood one day.
Perhaps more important, remember that preparation can be key. What if an exercise doesn’t bring the anticipated results but there are six more hours left in the rehearsal day? What should be done with the dancers or actors? This kind of pressure can be intense and can cripple a creative effort. An author suffering from writers block does not have to answer to her keyboard. So what is the back up plan? Is there a new direction that can be explored? Or can a generative environment be established that allows the leader some latitude for retreat and thought in the face of unforeseen challenges? When entering into any studio setting, it is critical to consider ways of working that best nurture an artist’s personal creative process.
These are just a couple of reasons (trust me, there are many) why the LAB requires more from artists rather than less: more thought, planning, research and reflection. In other words, we recognize that total freedom can be overwhelmed by practical limitations. LAB Fellows still get all the space they require and they are encouraged to use our facility to its maximum potential. But first they need a research plan to map out their year in advance. After generative periods they need to reflect and write about their process and share their findings with their peers. Monthly meetings are scheduled to discuss the challenges that come with creative opportunities. Seasoned visiting artists are invited to share techniques for overcoming issues that accompany all artistic processes. LAB Fellows are required to show their research as they are developing it as a means of reflecting on the direction of the work.
All of these activities are designed to break the isolation of the studio and create a community around creative practice. This involves many people: artists, administrators, collaborators, programmers and audiences. But primarily it requires artists to open up their process enough to allow themselves to be vulnerable yet assertive and to dream big but plan effectively.
Three cheers for three years!