I have no desire or inclination to be a writer. I have found my happiness recording and arranging things on mediums that record motion (film, tape, digital tape). Recording events, behavior, stories, faces, vistas, and then lining them up, putting them in place - giving them a place in time. Reflecting on experience in words? I do that in conversation, talking out loud, or just thinking. I don't do it here, on a page. All this despite coming from a family of writers and a personal culture of reading and writing.
A few quotes come to mind. Writer James McManus when asked to spend a few minutes writing his reflections on an evening spent playing poker: "You don't know what you're asking me to do." Elvis Costello: "It's the words that we don't say that scare me so." Marlene Dietrich in Orson Welles' masterpiece "Touch of Evil": "What does it matter what you say about people?"
Thus I begin a blog about shooting and editing a documentary on four Illinois artists.
To introduce myself, I've been at WTTW since June, 2000. When I arrived I was Series Producer of Artbeat Chicago. It was a weekly half-hour arts magazine started in 1997, and a great outlet for terrifically-produced stories about Chicago's remarkable theater, dance, music, literary, visual art and architecture scene. In all mediums there were, and are, great stories to tell, and we told them in pictures and sound bites, narration and music. Artbeat Chicago as a separate show is no more. I also produced Geoffrey Baer's Chicago by Boat: The New River Tour. Prior to WTTW, I produced, directed, shot, edited, lit, catered, and assisted on myriad video, film and TV productions in Chicago and New York, where I got my degree decades ago at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Mostly I love the movies.
This documentary began when the Illinois Arts Council approached WTTW with a request for an hour-long program on the arts to help them celebrate their 40th anniversary. Truly this was a gigantic vote of confidence in my boss, Fawn Ring, who had been executive producer for a series about Arts Council artists called Arts Across Illinois since 2000. Her intent was to find a filmmaker and deliver something great.
For some reason she chose me. I suggested a lot of great people who have made a lot of great films. People you've heard of. People who have won big big awards and found big big audiences. She chose me. I can't explain it. You'd have to ask her.
The idea was to make something that explored or revealed the reasons people make and love art. The jumping off point was a policy paper of sorts by the Rand Corporation called "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts," which argued that art was important because it had an intrinsic value to its creators and its audience. In other words, art itself was its own very important reward, an idea that on the surface is obvious, but if you've ever sat around a table with public policy makers or the folks handing out budgets to schools, can't be said enough.
The Arts Council put no limitations or stipulations on the documentary. Whatever we wanted to make, they said. So we made some suggestions.
Turns out they had reactions to our ideas, more like directions, really. Bottom line, they were interested in a show that featured more than one artist and storyline.
I thought this was a mistake at the time. I wanted to engage and move an audience, hopefully leave them gasping for breath. I felt the best way to do that was to bring them into the world of another person, into their very immediate and personal hopes, dreams and desires, to experience their problems and their compromises and triumphs, to go on a journey with them. Hopefully that journey would have a beginning, middle and end built around some aspect of process – the premiere of a new play or the completion of some large new work. To have folks share that stage, to hop from one story to another, felt like the sort of thing that would satisfy the needs of a committee or state agency (an anthology-like production) but audiences wouldn't be interested in watching.
However, it was their commission, and so we began.
(I say "we" because besides myself and Fawn, there was Tracye Campbell, an associate producer who also had worked on Artbeat Chicago since 2000. Tracye is an Emmy-winning segment producer who went on to create a series of pieces for Chicago Tonight, the station's nightly hour-long news magazine show, about the anecdotal history of Chicago's African-American communities. Tracye was part of our team.)
Choosing the artists was its own journey. They had to have something going on that we could follow but they needed something more as well, maybe that thing that theatre director Peter Brook described as the wound necessary to give a person depth (I'm paraphrasing, but hey, it's a blog!). We're all vulnerable, and if I wanted the audience to get close to somebody on TV, we share that as people, don't we?
I wanted to work with the co-directors of Albany Park Theater Project, David Feiner and Laura Wiley. This is an amazing group on Chicago's Northwest side that creates original plays with their teen ensemble, performers who often have no training beyond what they learn at APTP, as the co-directors call it. The plays are always based on real stories, either from the lives of the ensemble members or from people in the community. I've been going to see their work for years and have always been shocked, frankly, at its sophistication and depth, something that can be missing in some very famous celebrated theaters in Chicago. When it became clear the hour had to be shared with other artists, I approached Laura, partly because she is hyper-articulate, a loving but demanding director, because she is the author, if you will, of the company's physical vocabulary (it's a dancerly group), and because she has been living with ovarian cancer for the past few year. When shooting began, the cancer was back and she was reentering chemo treatment. David, her husband, is also hyper-articulate, and equally loving and demanding, but I believed the uncertainty of Laura's situation and her willingness to share it with us was powerful, and at the heart of what was happening with APTP at that time.
David and Laura were just about to start rehearsal on a new show about domestic abuse and misguided religious beliefs called "God's Work." It would open when shooting was scheduled to wrap.
I also was interested in jazz composer and musician Orbert Davis. I didn't know a lot about Orbert's work but I knew he had recently formed a very ambitious group, the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. I heard them perform at the Chicago Jazz Fest in the old bandshell. I also knew he was from Momence in Kankakee County, and that he had done workshops for kids in an elementary school in Hopkins Park, Illinois. Hopkins Park, also referred to as Pembroke, is one of the poorest towns in the United States. It made the front page of the New York Times in 2003, much to the embarrassment of state officials. In many homes there is no running water or electricity. The roads are unpaved, there is no police or fire department, no major businesses. There is a gas station or two. However, there is an incredible superintendent of schools, Dr. B.J. Hawrey, a childhood friend of Orbert's, and other individuals in town who passionately believe the arts should not, and cannot, be an afterthought in the lives of their students and children. Remarkable. I wanted Orbert to return to Hopkins Park and connect with the community, to give us a way into a story about people with next to nothing from a material or political perspective, but who had a depth of understanding about the arts that would make others blush with shame.
Orbert's first concert with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic was planned for a paying audience. He was also writing a new piece. The concert date was the same weekend that APTP planned to open "God's Work."
That gave me a woman, a man, theatre and music, a white person and an African-American. Part of the balancing act, I'm afraid, in a show that has an anthology-like mandate.
My next choice wouldn't do a lot to tip the scales. A sculptor, yes, but a white woman. Dessa Kirk was an artist I always meant to do a story on but never had. She makes big work, public work. A number of her pieces are in Grant Park, most notably at the intersection of Michigan and Congress opposite Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Theatre Building. And her own story is wild – raised in Alaska by a single mother, her breakthrough works, a series of oversized highly feminine lilies carved, if you will, from the remains of Cadillacs were meant to exorcise the ghosts of sexually exploited women, of prostitutes who rode in the backs of pimp-mobiles, a reality she was first exposed to as a runaway teen in Anchorage. She was a master welder who used torches to refashion steel. If I wanted a visual artist who would provide sparks, she was it.
Dessa was leaving her old studio in the back of a steel slitting plant to move into a building she was planning to buy, a huge place on the near West side of Chicago. She was also working on a commission, she said, for a site in Columbus, Indiana, home to a collection of amazing buildings by some of the 20th century's best architects.
I needed at least one more artist. I was adamant the next artist be a writer. Experience has taught me that musicians and sculptors aren't always the best talkers. If I wanted someone to speak well, and possibly articulate themes I was after, a writer was the ticket. On that score, I was most interested in a poet. That's partly because I'm mildly perverse – everyone loves to write poetry, no one loves to read it, goes the saying. However, I believe a poet, a compressor, a distiller of language is better for TV, if the art is going to be featured, than a novelist or short story writer. Poems are short and powerfully succinct. A few words and you're over the moon. But the numbers, if you will, suggested we look for another man, someone from downstate (everyone else was a Chicagoan), and a Latino.
I called Kevin Stein, the Illinois Poet Laureate and respectfully described the project and my need (having to add I wasn't calling to invite him to a subject of the documentary). I said "Do you know a Latino poet from downstate Illinois who writes about place?" (I was hoping place to be a theme in the finished show. It wasn't.) He laughed and directed me to "Illinois Voices," an anthology he co-edited a few years ago, where I'd find work by three or four poets he thought might be what I was looking for. They were all down-staters, south of Springfield. Many of them were from Carbondale where some have jobs teaching at Southern Illinois University. We chose Allison Joseph, author of a provocatively playful poem about sex and basketball titled "For the Love of the Game." Rumored to be a college basketball fan and author of five books of poetry, Joseph, an African-American women, wrote frankly about race, family, art, adolescence, and did it with great formal skill. It was accessible but rich writing.
Allison is the co-editor of Crab Orchard Review along with her teaching and writing. The timing was wrong for a large scale artistic journey. I was hoping at least to be around when she wrote a poem.
That was the wish list. Happily they all agreed. Thus we began, with 25 days of shooting to share between 4 artists, including one at the far southern tip of the state, and another who agreed to travel 80 miles south of Chicago, giving us visual and geographic diversity.
This was late November, 2005. The show was scheduled to air in May, 2006, to coincide with the Illinois Arts Council's Governor's Awards. To complicate matters, I had some serious ambitions of my own about how those 25 days of shooting and the period of editing that would follow should proceed.