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Ramachandran on Mirror Neurons

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 6 comments

Previously on this blog we looked at VS Ramachandran's 2007 talk on mirror neurons and phantom limbs. In that post, I imagined how the mirror effects that heals phantom limb syndrome might possibly extend to harmful emotional patterns in the mind of greater complexity, and that theatre, through its use of empathy, could heal these patterns in a similar way.

Well, in November of last year, Ramachandran upped the ante on us big time. NOW, VS says that if it wasn't for our bodies telling us constantly that we are separate creatures, there would be no difference between our experience of our own actions, and the experience of watching the actions of someone else.

Here's the video - watch it.

The ideas are revolutionary enough to need excerpting here:

"So, here again you have neurons which are enrolled in empathy. Now, the question then arises: If I simply watch another person being touched, why do I not get confused and literally feel that touch sensation merely by watching somebody being touched? I mean, I empathize with that person but I don't literally feel the touch. Well, that's because you've got receptors in your skin, touch and pain receptors, going back into your brain and saying don't worry, you're not being touched...

But if you remove the arm, you simply anesthetize my arm, so you put an injection into my arm, anesthetize the brachial plexus, so the arm is numb, and there is no sensations coming in, if I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand. In other words, you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. So, I call them Gandhi neurons, or empathy neurons.

And this is not in some abstract metaphorical sense, all that's separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person's touch in your mind. You've dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this, of course is the basis of much of Eastern philosophy, And that is there is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are in fact, connected not just via Facebook, and Internet, you're actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there is whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else's consciousness.

And this is not mumbo-jumbo philosophy. It emerges from our understanding of basic neuroscience."

What theatre can do is push us to the very limits of this dissolved barrier, to feel absolutely the experience of another human being as our own, while still maintaining the skin of our individuality. Read the full story

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Flux's Ticket Discount Deals

Saturday, February 6, 2010 3 comments

Earlier in January, Kelly O'Donnell forward us a link to Peculiar Works' co-founder Barry Rowell's blog, A Strange Interlude (I wonder if it is named for one of Eugene O'Neill's stranger plays which I secretly adore and dream of staging), which featured a look at Flux's discount ticket deals and made all of our days.

Flux has spent in an inordinate amount of time arguing out the philosophy behind these deals, and it is really gratifying to see that recognized. Sometimes, you wonder if anyone notices, so Barry, thank you for noticing.

The philosophy is not new: basically, it says if you commit to our work ahead of time, during that pivotal 1st or 2nd week, we'll discount our tickets as much as possible out of gratitude. As Barry notes, it's currently not much, but the philosophy behind it is sincere; and because of it, we NEVER offer a better discount than that 1st week discount, even if a poorly selling night sorely tempts us to do so.

It's about building trust in relationships, and it's why recent theories about using demand based pricing in ticket sales strikes me as singularly unwise for NFP institutions. And it reinforces my belief that unless you are lucky enough to have an Adam Thurman leading your marketing, the risks of a traditional, specialist org structure can lead to strategies coming before relationships.

It's been gratifying in our intensified core values conversations this past month that all of our membership has been naturally putting the audience as a partner in the conversation; without setting out to do it, the way we work has organically bred that priority in our bones. We need to hold fast to it, go further with it, and I look forward to sharing the fruits of those conversations soon. Read the full story

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Out and About, 2/10

Thursday, February 4, 2010 4 comments

(Photo: Jonathan Slaff. Pictured: The cast of Rue from 2006)
While we prepare for our next Food:Soul, Fluxers and friends are out and about in full force this February.

Candice Holdorf is playing principle role Terri Succi in the upcoming film, An Affirmative Act.

Michael Davis has founded his own company (thankfully, he's still in ours!) called Eurisko Performance Group. Learn more here, and then fan them there.

Ken Glickfeld is appearing in Demon Bitch Goddess (that's right!) at Workshop Theater Company.

Crystal Skillman has a reading of her play The Sleeping World (developed at Flux Sundays!) at the Woodshed Collective on Monday, February 22nd.

Mary Fengar Gael has a reading of her play Beggar At The Feast (also Fluxed!) at Reverie Productions on Sunday, February 28th.

Andrew Valins is reprising his performance as Rotpeter in his adaptation of Kafka's A Report to an Academy on February 10th and 11th.

And two of our Flux founding plays are being read - Rue (2006), pictured above, will be read at Direct Arts as part of their Take Two series on Tuesday, February 9th. Hopefully, we'll see you there for a nostalgic trip back to the island.

And for our Philly friends, Riding the Bull (2005 & 2007) will be read at the Walnut Street Theater Rehearsal Hall 4 tomorrow at 7:30PM. For those who can't be there, I give you the brilliant poster they've cooked up:

See you out and about in February! Fluxers and friends, what must see events did I miss? Read the full story

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Flux Sunday, January 31st

(What is Flux Sunday?)

Playwrights: Johnna Adams (The Anguisher), James Comtois (McTeague), Mary Fengar Gael (The Gallerist), Kristen Palmer (Sacrifice), Adam Szymkowicz (My Base and Scurvy Heart)

Directors: Heather Cohn, MFG, August Schulenburg

Actors: Amy Fitts, Brian Pracht, Alisha Spielmann, Isaiah Tanenbaum, Richard Watson, Nancy Franklin, Paula Roman, Ryan Andes, Cotton Wright, Becky Kelly

And then, after two Flux Sundays that pushed the time limit of 3 hours, we somehow how fit our best Flux Sunday in some time into 2 hours (there was a last minute space issue). Woosh!

Part of it was the quality of material - all the plays were strong. Part of it was directors and actors making good choices quickly. And part of it was that weird alchemy that sometimes is kind enough to bubble up mysteriously from the work.

Highlights included:
- Alisha Spielmann's spirited turn as the hyper intelligent teen Emmie in Kristen's Sacrifice
- James Comtois' creep-inducing turn as the scarred but hungry Henry in Johnna's The Anguisher
- Amy Fitts somehow completely believable channeling of a monkey in Mary's The Gallerists
- Nancy Franklin's adorably smitten Miss Baker in James' McTeague - when will she and Old Grannis get together, damn it?!?
- Adam's deliriously funny opening scene of his new pirate play, My Base and Scurvy Heart; which thankfully had Johnna as one of the fierce pirate lasses

Artists who attended, what were your favorite moments? Read the full story

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String Theory of Character

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 1 comments

I know, you've been breathlessly waiting for the next physics inspired theoretical post, wading impatiently through all these Flux updates and Homing Project riffs. Well, the wait is over.

At the Black Playwrights Convening, in the surrounding conversation on Twitter at #newplay, and in recent posts from RVC Bard, Halcyon Theatre, and Parabasis, there has been a fascinating discussion about racial/cultural identity in theatre. Questions about what makes a black play black, about why an Arab actor must play an Arab role, whether casting should be color-blind, inclusive, or integrated, what role race plays in a production where race isn't specified, and much more are being hashed out eloquently.

This connects to me previous posts about the importance of the diversity of audience perspective in creating great theatre, and how that importance demands plays that juxtapose characters of diverse and contradictory perspectives on stage, as well.

I've been thinking of string theory's multi-dimensional model as a framework for thinking about diversity of perception. The extremely short version is that string theory posits a limit to the smallness of matter and energy, an irreducible unit that makes up the known universe. These are strings, incredibly small vibrating units that depending on how they vibrate, manifest all the widely different particles we know.

But of course you can't have a limitless number of possible vibrations, or you'd have a limitless number of particles, which our universe clearly does not have. And as it turns out, what defines the possible vibrations are the number and shape of dimensions.

For string theory to be right, there may be as many as 10 or 11 (or in some versions, 26!) dimensions, 3 of which are the macro-scale we're familiar with, 6-7 which are incredibly small, and that old mystery time makes 10 or11.

Depending on the shape of these incredibly small dimensions, these vibrating strings will create a universe like ours, or a universe with completely different laws of physics. The possible shapes of these dimensions are called Calabi-Yau spaces, and they determine how a string will vibrate in response to its surroundings.

Here's the important part: change the number or shape of the dimensions, you change the range of notes for a string, and thereby changes the rules of what's possible.

Change string for identity and dimensions for experience, and you have the rules that govern character.

The experiences with which we traditionally define diversity - age, race, culture, gender, sexuality, class, geography, religion, aesthetics, health, politics, and so on - all of these are dimensions into which the character's string can vibrate. And as certain characters share certain experiences, we may be able to describe a shape to each dimension of diversity, a recognizable common ground, even as we acknowledge that with each added dimension, the possible range of notes multiplies into an absolute uniqueness.

It is our job as artists to strive for this absolute uniqueness in creating character, especially in a world that for purposes of commerce and control pushes identity into a single dimension.

As it is for a single character, so it is for a single play: the capacity for meaning to vibrate through many different dimensions is part of what makes something great; we've all felt the disappointment of the single note play.

As it is for the play, so it for an audience; and I believe that great art can tear a fabric in the dimension of human beings and actually create new space for the spirit to vibrate; it can literally expand our capacity for life.

And as it for an audience, so it is for a culture.

So while I recognize and respect the need to talk about the rough dimensions of diversity; it is the coming together of a diverse and unique range of notes in character, person, play, and culture that interest me most; and where I feel our work as artists lies.

From dizzyingly small to lofty large, this post: not to worry, I'll return to our middle-world soon. Read the full story

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National New Play Network's Playwrights In Residence Program

Monday, February 1, 2010 2 comments

I was aware of the amazing work the National New Play Network is doing with their Continued Life of New Plays Fund, which was also featured as a positive example in Outrageous Fortune.

But through Adam's recent interview with Steve Yockey, I came across an equally interesting program from NNPN called the Emerging Playwrights in Residence program. This program takes recent graduates of MFA programs, and puts them in residence for 1 year with a NNPN member theatre, where they participate directly in the artistic and producing life of the company.

Because the residency is only a year, is reserved only for recent MFA grads, and has no production guarantee, this program is not a perfect fit for The Homing Project, but it could certainly be an ally. It is also a perfect match for one of my take-away wishes from Outrageous Fortune - playwrights embedded in the functioning life of a theatre. Read the full story

Homing Project, Step 1

What is The Homing Project?

There's been some good feedback to The Homing Project from Scott at Theatre Ideas, Guy at Culture Future, J at 99 Seats, and the potential of a convening in midsummer as part of the New Play Institute, led by Arena and David Dower. I've also received some support for the idea on Twitter at #newplay and via email (reach me at gus@fluxtheatre.org). So I'm trying to move this forward as best I can, taking it step by step.

The first step is an easy one - what artistic homes for playwrights are already out there?

I know that there are already strong traditions of artistic homes in the Indie Theatre and Ensemble Theatre movements, and a number of positive examples, some traced by Outrageous Fortune, at the larger institutions. I wouldn't be surprised if the 1/10th of the field, the 400 partners mentioned in the previous post, already exist.

So the first step is obviously to acknowledge the theatres and playwrights already doing this, and reach out to them to form an informal (for the time being) coalition.

What is the criteria for being considered an artistic home for a playwright? Well, I'm not interested in this being a purity test. What I do think is this artistic home should consist of either:

- A proven commitment to producing the playwright's work on a regular basis
- A similar level of resources provided to the playwright over time (like Arena's current 3 year residency program, which includes housing, health insurance, and more).

Development is very important, but for the purposes of this project, not enough. I'd like to think that the 20+ playwrights Flux develops on a weekly basis consider us a home; but for the purposes of this project, it's the sustained commitment to production that counts.

Also, I think ensembles that continually devise work, or companies where a director functions as the primary creative source of play creation, could also be included.

So PLEASE, post in the comments below any theatres you know of providing this kind of artistic home, along with the playwright, like so (I'll get the list started):

ARTISTIC HOMES
Nosedive Productions: James Comtois
Young Jean Lee's Theatre Company: Young Jean Lee
Ontological-Hysteric Theatre: Richard Foreman
The Vampire Cowboys: Qui Nguyen
Arena Stage: Karen Zacarias
Partial Comfort Productions: Chad Beckhim
Gideon productions: Mac Rogers
Working Man's Clothes: Bekah Brunstetter
Stolen Chair: Kiran Rikhye
Blue Coyote Theatre Company: Matthew Freeman
Bannana, Bag, and Bodice: Jason Craig
International WOW Company: Josh Fox
Maeutic Theatre Works: David Stallings
New York Neo-Futurists: The Ensemble
Packawallop Productions: Alejandro Morales
Rabbit Hole: Stanton Wood
Rising Phoenix Repertory: Crystal Skillman
The Amoralists: Derek Ahonen
Piper McKenzie: Jeff Lewonczyk
Disgraced Productions: Robert Attenweiler

20 names off the top of my head - 380 more from all of you, and we're on our way to a solid base for The Homing Project. So please, comment below w/other playwright/theatre matches, and if you're interested in getting involved further, email me at gus@fluxtheatre.org. Read the full story