Backstage; Back in Time: Behind the Scenes on Creative Process

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about behind-the-scenes work on performed or displayed art. On Monday I attended a live reading of the first (forthcoming) season of The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), a new radio show being produced with support from NPR music. It is “an imaginary, unstuck-in-time variety show broadcast from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Each episode is a surreal mélange of comical auditory absurdities (including tap-dancing mice and Dadaist displays of ventriloquism), musical numbers, and enthralling, long-form narrative feature presentations. The show is hosted by esteemed radio personality John Cameron (John Cameron Mitchell), regularly interrupted (much to his dismay) by Julian (Julian Koster), the janitor at the Eiffel Tower, who not-so-secretly dreams of being on the air.” It struck me as kin to A Prairie Home Companion, Welcome to Night Vale, and BBC Radio’s Cabin Pressure.

This was a live reading of the first six episodes, designed to gauge audience response to the material. It was a sweet and funny show that I can’t wait to hear on the radio—and it was also fascinating to see behind the curtain as writers and actors worked to polish their art. The audience is always an active part of any performance, but this was more distinctly collaborative than anything I’d experienced in a long time. And yet the work felt rich and finished even in its informal state—the episodes as I heard them were cohesive and strong enough to stand, and I’m sure the final edits won’t be blown willy-nilly by every gust of audience reaction.

I think there’s a lesson to be taken in terms of when to let in the idea (or literal presence) of an audience into your creative space. When is it helpful, even necessary, to have others’ eyes and ears on your work, and when is it distracting or intimidating? Writing can seem isolated and isolating work; I like the idea of taking inspiration in my process from the performing arts.

Last night fortune smiled on me and, thanks to the rush lottery, I was back to see Hamilton again at the Public Theater. It was of course as good as I remembered, and I had a great second viewing—noticing brilliant bits of background choreography (the ballet of the ensemble delivering Hamilton’s summons to a Revolutionary command from one end and level of the stage to the other is insane); appreciating the way early scenes and musical themes foreshadow later ones; seeing Jonathan Groff play King George III, having taken over for Brian D’Arcy James. But maybe the most rewarding thing for me was that this time I was able to see the lighting and soundboard from my seat, and therefore watch (in glimpses) Alex Lacamoire conduct the orchestra and play piano for the show. It felt like seeing behind the scenes in a different way, backstage rather than back in time, and again seeing the finished, visible product of the show from a different angle.

 It’s all left me thinking about how to take apart my process and my work and look at them from different angles, to think about them differently and hopefully find my way to something new. (And about what a great, lucky week I’ve had—and it’s only Wednesday!)