- Spoken word poet-turned-rapper Watsky pulled no punches in his first collection of essays.
- If life is itself a performance, what can theatre teach us about how to be ourselves?
- Dindga McCannon helped pioneer art quilting, a fresh approach to a traditional medium.
- Stage & Screen
- Art & Design
Coming up: The performance poet turned rapper Watsky pulls no punches in his first collection of essays. All of his work is characterized by witty wordplay and disarming honesty.
Watsky: I’m trying to do self-examination, I’m trying to meditate on what I really think. Doesn’t always mean I’m giving the most intelligent analysis of a situation, but I am trying to at least examine what I really think about stuff and play the counterargument against myself.
It’s widely accepted that life itself is a performance. If so, what can theater teach us about how to be ourselves?
Thalia Goldstein: Theater came from the fact that we are trying to figure out how to present ourselves to other people. And theater and fiction generally just distills that down to its most basic elements.
And Dindga McCannon helps pioneer art quilting, an innovative, improvisational approach to a traditional medium.
Dindga McCannon: We made it our business to produce an art form that celebrated us.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
After winning several high profile slam poetry competitions, a teenage George Watsky became a spoken word star.
There’s 7,046,000,000 people on the planet and
most of us have the audacity to think we matter.
Hey! Hear the one about the comedian who croaked?
They stabbed him in the heart, just a little poke.
But he keeled over because he went into battle
wearing chain mail made of jokes.
Hey! Hear the one about the screenwriter who passed away?
He was getting elevator pitches and the elevator got stuck halfway.
He ended up eating smushed sandwiches they pushed through a crack in the door
and repeating the same crappy screenplay idea about talking dogs till his last day.
But after years performing on the college circuit, his attention shifted to another art form. But he says that, far from a radical shift, becoming a rapper was merely an acknowledgment of his first love, live music.
George Watsky: That was my version of going to church, was going to a concert and seeing those people up on stage and the energy of the crowd. The experience of a concert is something that is extremely special to me and to be able to do it on a nightly basis, it’s this crazy rush. I get to be the most ego-driven version of myself on stage. Which allows me, I think, to be a little shyer in private life. Whereas in the past I thought I needed to be the center of attention all the time. Because I had no other outlet to fuel that part of me.
Even as he plays an exaggerated version of himself on stage, Watsky remains steadfast in his commitment to his own voice, rather than a pale imitation of how tradition dictates a rapper should sound.
Watsky: There’s a lot of politics involved in being a white rapper. There’s a lot of conscious and subconscious choices you make about how you want to be perceived as a musician. And those choices actually say a good deal about where you stand as an MC, what you think about hip hop and your place in hip hop. And for me, one reason that I fell in love with hip hop is its honesty and the person who is speaking, relaying their own experiences. For me, my experiences are going to be the ones I’m having talking to you. And yeah, some people when they listen to me might not think it’s their idea of what rap is supposed to sound like or what classic hip hop is or what they grew up on loving. But what I grew up loving was honesty, perspective, sharing yourself. And so that is my conscious choice when I rap, to sound like I sound in conversation. And some people might perceive it as being nerdy or like “Wow, that guy sounds really white.” Like, yeah okay, I am. That’s who I am, that’s what it’s gonna be like when you meet me.
Watsky’s music draws from a wide swathe of influences, including, unusually, classical music. His latest album, x Infinity, ends with a song cycle.
Watsky: The first one is a song called “Conversations”, which is about two different conversations I had with my father about mortality. One when I was nine and about to turn 10 and one when I was 29 and about to turn 30. And in the first one, my dad was consoling me because I was freaking out about getting older, that death isn’t for a long time. And in the second conversation, I was consoling my father that it wasn’t for a long time. So the first verse is his conversation to me and the second verse is my conversation to him. That goes smoothly into “Knots,” which is sort of a Chopin inspired piano piece that I rap over, and it tells the story of a piano player named Arthur Rubenstein. He attempted suicide when he was young. He was in his early 20s. So he tried to hang himself and his rope snapped. And he felt that he had an epiphany at that moment and “Knots” tells the story of Arthur in his room with creditors banging at the door as he ties the noose, he puts himself up on the chair and then steps off it. “Knots” ends with him stepping off of the chair.
Watsky regards himself as a writer first and foremost. His debut collection of essays published by Penguin Random House is a New York Times bestseller. How to Ruin Everything is a brutally honest recollection of some of the most memorable episodes of his life so far. “Ask Me What I’m Doing Tonight” recounts his time as a traveling poet.
Watsky: And I’d learned after this many shows that any single performance can be the one that inflates your ego or destroys it. The night that makes you feel like a big web of energy links every single being across time and space. Or the gig that alienates you from every shallow, shitty human on the planet. After the show, I rolled around in a field with a pretty redheaded agricultural engineering student like I got to do occasionally after good shows. We pulled ourselves apart, laid on our backs looking up at the quilt of stars, hundreds of miles from the light pollution of St. Louis. Am I going to see you again? Yes. I never really gave much thought to the fields while flying over them. Just seems like a whole lot of empty space from above. But I wonder how many half naked kids you’d see rolling around in them if you zoomed in. Back at the Super 8, I scraped the golden crusty cheese off the corner of my Stouffer’s container with a plastic fork I picked up at the front desk. The corners are the best part and I always save them for last. “Maybe I’ll start eating better on the road”, I thought, and check the ingredients on the back of the Stouffer’s box. “Wheat. But maybe later.”
These days, Watsky is a world away from the college circuit and so too are his lyrics.
Gotta shovel, now I’m breakin’ this ground.
Because I’m in the red
but it’s only a color that I will be paintin’ this town.
Because when I make it, then I dedicate it to the
friends that stood with, who would do me favors.
Even lend me paper, when I couldn’t pay for
A little take-out.
Watsky: I’m trying to do self-examination and I’m trying to meditate on what I really think. And when there’s a world event, I do try and go deeper into the layers of what I think. Doesn’t mean I’m always giving the most intelligent analysis of a situation. But I am trying to at least examine what I really think about stuff and play the counterargument against myself.
AJC: Right, but aside from external events, you’re going through this world. You’re a person on this earth and you’re changing and growing all the time, and having new experiences in your relationships to other people and in your relationship to the world. How much of that self-examination goes into your music, do you think?
Watsky: I mean, a confusion and a terror about living and mortality has always been the driving force behind all my work. And if there’s anything that I’m trying to get across, it’s how little I know, how much I think that a person to exist in this world needs to rationalize their existence just to get through a day. And you know, we don’t even know what we are and yet we’re able to stumble our way through life and through a week and through a month. And yet, under the surface, at least for me, in every moment there’s this feeling of like “What is going on?” at all times. Like I know as you get older, you get better at pushing those thoughts to the back of your mind. But I don’t wanna get better at pushing those thoughts to the back of my mind. I think that even though you’re growing older and getting better at existing, you’re also getting worse at examining and seeing wonder in things and realizing how bizarre daily life really is.
Bouncing off my bedroom walls since I was hecka small
We’re every age at once and tucked inside ourselves
Like Russian nesting dolls
My mother is an eight year old girl
My grandson is a 74 year old retiree
Whose kidneys just failed
And that is the glue
between me and you
That is the screws and nails
We live in a house
made of each other
And if that sounds strange
It’s because it is
Somebody please freeze
time so I can run around
pockets inside out
you didn’t see s–t
Watsky: I think that there’s a hypocrisy in what I do, which is at the core of my work, I’m sort of a nihilist. I don’t believe in fate. I don’t believe in a structured god. I don’t believe that there’s a plan for me. I’m terrified of not mattering. I know that I don’t matter. Like every individual human being is a grain of sand. But yet I want to so much. I want to matter, I want my work to matter, I want to communicate with people. I want to connect with human beings. I want my life to feel like it has meaning on this planet. I believe in beauty even though I don’t know what it is and yet… It’s the core message of my new album that nothing matters, so it doesn’t matter, nothing matters. How do you square up the fact if you are a nihilistic person and believe that we’re all just dust in the wind with the fact that you want to live a meaningful life?
And for Watsky, meaning lives here.
So when the world breaks your legs
You go and beat it with your crutch.
If all of the world is in fact a stage, and we are all merely players upon it, how good are actors at portraying us? And how good are we at playing ourselves? If in fact there is such a thing as a singular authentic self. Thalia Goldstein is a psychologist that spent several years as a professional actress. She now runs the social and cognition lab at Pace University.
Thalia Goldstein: Psychology and theater are the same thing. They’re both trying to figure out why humans do what they do and how we can affect and change human behavior. They’re just looking at it from very different viewpoints, through very different lenses.
Goldstein says that life itself can be considered a form of theater, particularly in high stress situations.
Goldstein: I think it is a theatrical process because you are aware of what you’re doing. In scenarios such as interviews, there is a level of metacognitive awareness where you are both yourself and watching yourself. That little voice in your head that says “Okay, you don’t wanna talk about this so much” or “Make sure you mention that you have this experience” or that you’ve done this task at some point. So this metacognitive awareness requires a lot of what we call working memory. The ability to sort of keep both the active conversation that you’re engaged in, in mind, but also this other superordinate set of goals that you wanna make sure that you achieve, in mind. There’s a great rule by the acting coach, Chekhov, that actors should always be in an 80-20 zone. 80 percent in character, where you are feeling the emotions of your character, really engaged with the other person that you’re talking to. But 20 percent making sure that you know that you hit your lights and “What is my next line?” And so this 80-20 rule I think applies really well to how we present ourselves in everyday life because we have a superordinate goal of getting the job, of impressing the person we’re sitting across the table with.
And just as we’re constantly giving a performance in our daily lives, actors are simply rendering a more dramatic version of everyday life.
Goldstein: Theater came from the fact that we are trying to figure out how to present ourselves to other people. And theater and fiction generally just sort of distills that down to its most basic elements.
Carmen Khan: Plays are an encyclopedia of archetypes.
And none more than the plays of the Bard. The master to whom Carmen Khan, director of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater, has dedicated her life.
Khan: Jung wrote about this cast of characters that we all hold inside of us. When you see a Shakespeare play, the body of work has all of these types in it that we are. So there’s the rescuer, the savior, the lover, the tyrant. And so Jung cataloged that and I believe that in Shakespeare’s plays, the reason that 400 years later, why are they still resonating? Is because we see ourselves.
And for performers such as Brian Anthony Wilson, a busy stage and screen actor, each new role calls for a unique approach.
Brian Anthony Wilson: Each character walks differently, each character talks differently. They breathe differently. They drink differently. Somebody asks me, because I play a lot of cops, “You get tired of it?” No, because they’re all different people.
But in order to embody another character on stage, actors first have to get their own personalities out of the way.
Goldstein: Most acting training starts with knowing yourself and understanding your own body and understanding your own reactions to events before you even begin to put another character on top of that.
Wilson: This above all, to thine own self be true. And it must follow as the night, the day. Thou canst not be false to any man.
Deaon Griffin-Pressley: I think actors, in a way, are kind of obsessed with the truth. That’s the whole thing. It’s not really acting.
For classically trained actor Deaon Griffin-Pressley, conveying the truth means digging deep into his own emotional memory.
Griffin-Pressley: Your sadness, your happiness, whatever exactly you’re going through, there really is not that great of a separation.
Wilson: I am who I am, so I have to bring myself to every role that I play. And I’ve played murderers, I’ve played child molesters. I’m certainly neither one of those, but you have to find a way to I guess acclimate yourself to that.
AJC: Are you changed by any of the characters you’ve played?
Wilson: Oh god, yes. You kind of start seeing the world through that character’s eyes sometimes. The character I played in Water By the Spoonful, I was so immersed in it and so enamored of him, I didn’t want to let that character go. And maybe because it awakened parts of me that I wasn’t that in touch with.
This focus on emotion is central to a more recent acting philosophy. The method espouses emotional memories as the basis of any convincing dramatic portrayal. But for some of its most dedicated practitioners, it can become a psychologically dangerous proposition.
Goldstein: The problem comes really when people try to sort of vaguely apply the method or teachers will push you to go back through traumas or emotionally difficult events that have happened in your past, and then once you’re done saying “Okay, we’re done, great, thank you.” The difficulty with the method is really spending a lot of time in a vulnerable emotional place and then sort of left at the end of it without recovery.
Wilson: I work with people who are very method and to the point where they almost can’t separate themselves sometimes, they’re that deep. And that’s a little scary. Because you have to be able to almost look at yourself from a side view sometimes. When you’re doing physical stuff, when you’re doing stage combat, that can be very dangerous. Because they get so caught up in it, I’ve seen people hurt. I saw a guy start bleeding out on stage because the other guy just got so caught up in it. That’s too much method.
And this kind of resetting is essential for the actor to return to his or her true self. Or as Carmen Khan would have it, true selves.
Khan: It’s like we are buying into the fiction of “I”, like you’re one unified thing. But there’s multiple sides of me and multiple sides of you. I mean, one of the things, I go back to Jung. If you ignore the shadow parts of yourself, they come and bite you.
Goldstein: There’s interesting work in the basic science of emotion regulation, how we control our emotions, that says that the more time you spend trying to put on a calm and happy face when you’re angry, the more stressed out your body is going to become. You know, we have prescribed ways that we have to act when we’re at work, when we’re at school, when we’re with our family. And the more those personas feel like acting, the less authentic they feel. The worse it feels, actually.
Instead, Goldstein suggests that by carefully observing our own emotions, we can react more mindfully.
Goldstein: You have to be fully, presently engaged in what you’re doing. You can’t engage in mind wandering, you can’t be judging yourself as you’re doing it, you have to be fully engaged in it. And I think that that applies both for acting on a stage and for acting in our everyday lives.
And so, in life as in art, you simply can’t fake it.
The precise planning and geometric symmetry that are hallmarks of most quilts prompted in our imagination are rarely found in the work of Dindga McCannon.
Dindga McCannon: As a traditional quilter, I would fail miserably. I call what I do art quilting, because it allows me to take all the different fields that I’ve dealt in and put it into one form of expression.
While traditional quilts use only textiles, no material is off limits to McCannon.
McCannon: Tie-dying, using recycled materials like metal, paper. I was fascinated with rust for a while there.
McCannon: Yeah, because things, like you find rusty items on the street. You can take a piece of fabric and soak it in vinegar and you get an image of the rusty pattern. So I’m always looking for rusty washers. I find all kinds of stuff. I’m always exploring “What if, and why don’t I try this combination with that combination.” It’s just fun and it’s exciting to just try to make all of this stuff fit together.
Over the course of her more than 50 year career, Dindga McCannon has become an expert in making it all fit together. Growing up, she was trained not in art but in domestic skills.
McCannon: The cooking, the cleaning, the sewing, and all that. It was mandatory as a woman, a young woman. That’s what you had to learn. But then around the time that I was 16, I had this great inspiration that I was going to be an artist. And of course nobody had ever heard of that in my family because it simply wasn’t a career option. And so from then on, my life path took like this and like that and like this instead of a straight line.
McCannon first applied these domestic skills to sewing dashikis, traditional African garments for men. Eventually, this practice evolved into wearable art and then art quilts. As the member of two collectives at the heart of the black arts movement, McCannon’s endeavors were designed to reflect black pride and identity.
McCannon: Because at that time, if somebody were to ask you “Oh, where’s the black arts?” Most of the time, the answer would be “There are no black arts, there’s really no history.” Which is not true. And of course, not only do we have all the artists that came before me, but we made it our business to produce an art form that celebrated us.
Today, Dindga McCannon’s work maintains a keen eye on building a legacy, both collective and personal.
McCannon: When my mother passed, I became the eldest in the family and all the papers and the bills and all that stuff, that passed down to me. Stayed in a box for 10 years. One day, an artist named Laura Gaston decided to have an art show for Harlem Sewn Up. The theme was do something dealing with Harlem. So I said “Oh, I’ve got all of this stuff that’s historical.” As you know, Harlem also, like may other neighborhoods, is changing. So I wanted to do a piece of work that showed that we have history here. I’m a third generation Harlemite. So I took all of these letters, picture of my mothers’ friends, insurance bills. I thought that if I don’t actually use the actual letters, what’s gonna happen to them? Probably get thrown away when I’m gone. So therefore I decided to use them. The way that we live in today’s world, everything’s on the computer. These things are tactile. They can be felt, they can be touched. And they’re like living history.
AJC: What are the conversations, if any, that you have with a lot of these traditional southern quilters?
McCannon: My conversation basically is that there’s room for all of us. I love people who do traditional quilting because to me, it’s another art form. Particularly men and women who take all those little teeny pieces and actually sew them up into something beautiful. That’s fantastic. But I can’t do that. If I know what something is going to look like before I finish it, I won’t even start it. Because it kills the fun for me. The whole fun in my world is coming up with a very vague idea of something I want to say, laying out a piece of fabric, and then beginning to compile things to go on it. I have no idea what it’s gonna look like, but I have to have confidence that it’s gonna come out alright. Whether it be next week, next year, or whenever I finish it. But that’s how I work. Like jazz, improvisation.
This improvisational approach also creates room for serendipity. After leaving one piece featuring women and music partially finished for months, inspiration struck.
McCannon: And so I took the piece out and I laid it on the table and then I started adding things. I said “Oh, I like this, it’s time now.”
AJC: What’s the feeling of rightness? How do you know it’s right?
McCannon: You don’t until you set everything down and then like for example, this piece, the major figure is a woman with a baton. And then around it I had put originally paper names of women who were composers. And then as I look at it, I said “Oh, I’ve got beads.” And “Oh, rhinestones.” The materials are beginning to say “Use me, use me! You know you want me, I’m in that box over there. Been sitting there too long, come get me.” And I’ll go get the box and start to play around with things and it all kind of works out. I just find it interesting that in the history, particularly of America, how a lot of art forms, the doors have been closed to women. But also throughout that history, there are women who are always kicking the door. “Open up, I can do this, I can do this!” And I love these women because I feel that because they existed and because they fought to do whatever art form it was, it made it possible for me in the 60s to say “I want to be an artist” and not be put in a nuthouse.
AJC: Was there a plan and have you achieved what you set out to achieve?
McCannon: My plan was just to exist as an artist, so I’ve succeeded in that. There’s about 20 million things I haven’t done yet.
AJC: You’ll stop doing this when you can no longer do it?
McCannon: I’ll stop doing this when I drop dead. And I hope to drop dead in the studio, busy.