Shaping the Artistic Voice

By Don Hall

The Five Artistic Experiences That Shaped Me
I once read an article that discussed director Frank Galati's early fascination with Greek tragedy and how that has affected much of his work and it got my noggin' to churning. What artistic experiences shape those of us in the artistic community and how does that help to illuminate the overall landscape we see today?

I can clearly see the tendencies behind the work of Kristiana Colón or Nestor Gomez. I can make assumptions about those moments of artistry that shaped the voices of Scott Whitehair and of Annalise Raziq. So I asked myself, "What were the five thought-shaping artistic experiences that I see as being seminal in both the work I do and the work I like?" and asked my internal Freud to connect the dots.

1) Harold and Maude
This is the first film I can remember seeing as a kid. Harold and Maude came out in 1971 so I was likely five- or six-years old. I'm certain I saw movies before that, but in reflection, this is the film that stands out as having an impact on me.

I remember the greasy bag of homemade popcorn, sitting on the back hatch of my mom's brown AMC Gremlin, the huge metal window speaker on my lap. I remember most of Harold and Maude (essentially about a depressed kid fascinated with death who, in lieu of being set up by his mother with young girls, instead stages a series of fake suicides and falls in love with an eighty-year-old Ruth Gordon.)

Inner Freud: It is obvious that this film inspired my love for the quirky and non-traditional and the fascination with death and dark theatrical acts.

2) That Kid in Seventh Grade Who Memorized Steve Martin's Let's Get Small
I don't remember his name but I remember his face indelibly. It was 1978. I worshipped Steve Martin. I loved Let's Get Small. I was the perpetually new kid in class for every grade until high school (we moved around a lot) and one day, in the early part of my seventh grade school year, this kid in my class starts riffing and cracking the class up. He was recycling bits from Let's Get Small and I was filled with a rage that only a twelve year old can muster. The kid was getting laughs from stolen material and I loathed him for it.

Inner Freud: Wonder were I get the chip on my shoulder about doing original art? Not any more.

3): Andy's Funhouse
1979. ABC. Andy Kaufman was my favorite actor on Taxi so when they aired his hour-long special, I planned my whole week around seeing it. I was mesmerized and, surprisingly, understood that much of it was a darkly comic spoof on everything I loved about him from Taxi.

Inner Freud: My obsession with entertaining but subversive performance art was born with my adoration of Kaufman. He is almost solely responsible for my love of tricks on the audience and my dislike for both the fourth wall and conventional comedy.

4) Terry Gilliam's Brazil
By the time I had graduated high school I was firmly in the camp of geeks who loved Monty Python. I was even more geeky in that I was in the rare company of kids who loved Terry Gilliam the most of them all.

In 1985, when Brazil hit the screen, I was transfixed by the darkly comic take on dystopia—always a fan of The Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man (the Chuck Heston dystopian triad), Gilliam's vision felt right. Felt honest. Felt true. Brazil set me on a path of discovery that included Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, George Orwell, Rene Magritte, M.C. Escher, David Lynch, and the world of politics and history.

Inner Freud: No surprises here. Cynical view of the future? Check. Distrust of mob rule and anti-authoritarian tendencies in artistic approach? Check.

5) KLOWN: Prick Us and We'll Burst
In 1996, a group of Chicago improvisers and sketch writers, under the leadership of Joel Jeske, created a dark, hysterical, bloody, bizarre clown show that had parts of vaudeville, burlesque, DADA and Grand Guignol in equal measure and simply blew my mind.

KLOWN remains the only piece of theatre I saw nine times in two weeks, making it the theatrical equivalent of Star Wars when I was twelve.

Inner Freud: It all starts to make some sort of grotesque sense, doesn't it? Now I have to gouge my eyes out with my mother's jewelry.

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In putting this list together, I realized how limiting the number five is. There have been loads of influences and influential moments that I believe feed my current artistic tendencies—from the music of The Beatles and Black Flag, the musicals of Stephen Sondheim and Cy Coleman, and the theatrical groundwork of Augusto Boal and Martin DaMaat to the novels of Stephen King and Alan Moore, the heroes of Marvel and DC and the experience of hosting The Moth for five years.

That said, I think these five sum it up as neatly as I can.

What are your five (which is a much more interesting question than "Who are in your Fave Five?")?