Frank Boyd’s one-man show The Holler Sessions, which premiered at On the Boards earlier this month, is about a radio DJ named Ray who is struggling to convey his passion for the music he loves. Locked in a space dense with jazz artifacts and existing outside the bonds of time, Ray tries to forge a connection with an audience he can’t see over jazz, a topic he understands only as an outsider. In so doing, he draws a line between himself and the artists about whom he’s passionate; they are those who play and he is amongst those who don’t play. The words “I do not play” ring throughout Boyd’s script as a sad inverted shibboleth; Ray is letting his audience know that he knows enough to know he is not worth listening to.
This does not stop Ray from reckoning with what is different about those who do play. He speaks of how much Charlie Parker practiced as a kid, and then pauses with a mix of envy and horror at the sacrifice required to become an artist. He digs deep into the biography of Louis Armstrong. Citing an apocryphal story, Ray asks what would have happened had Armstrong not asked to borrow an unreasonable sum of money from the family who employed him as a coal delivery boy, to purchase a cornet. Ray asks, If it were not for this absurd moment of childhood hubris, would Armstrong have become the Louis Armstrong we know?
Of course, it’s an unanswerable question, which the show acknowledges. It also revels and despairs in mulling that question and pushing it to its natural conclusion: given the importance of Armstrong in American cultural history, would our present be recognizable without the capriciousness of luck? Yet more important than the fabric of our history becomes the question, asked from the perspective of an outsider, What is talent? What combination of circumstance and skill is needed to become Louis Armstrong, and how easily could he have been knocked off his track?
The irony of all of this is that Boyd has written and performed his own non-artist with a stunningly high level of artistry. Boyd does play virtuosically, and, given that the show involves cleverly executed audience interaction, Boyd is forced to play with a jazz-like sense of improvisation. Ray’s interrogation of long-dead jazz icons functions as a proxy for his own work. Turning Ray’s questions about Armstrong and Parker back on Boyd: given that The Holler Sessions emerged from the ashes of a generative project devised with Boyd’s theatre company the TEAM, how close was this work to never reaching an audience? How desperate was Boyd to realize this piece? Is Frank Boyd Frank Boyd without The Holler Sessions? And more broadly, what is an artist without their work?
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler focuses its gaze on Louis Bloom (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a grifter who becomes an auteur through the capriciousness of fate. When we meet Lou he is a desperate thief, ever eager for work in the wake of the late-00’s economic collapse. We see him offering to intern at a San Fernando Valley scrapyard, only to get turned down for being a thief. On his drive home he sees men filming a car accident and, inspired immediately to pursue their line of work, steals a bike to pawn in exchange for some seed capital.
Lou turns to art as the ultimate form of entrepreneurship, starting his own business filming tragedies in progress to sell the footage to news outlets. What’s compelling about Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Lou is his dispassion; he speaks in business school jargon and sees his subjects, most of whom are near-death, as something other than human. When a news director who uses Lou’s footage expresses gratitude for his work, he transparently leverages a romantic relationship. There is no need for guile in the interaction as there is no recognized humanity. When a competitor winds up in a van accident Lou is filming, he explains to his objecting employee, “We’re professionals. He’s a sale.”
Bloom’s auteurism develops from basic need: a man desperate enough to do anything can hone his skills devoid of moral compunction or the tug of outside obligation. He lives sparsely and has no relationships. Though a grown man, Bloom is able to dedicate himself with a devotion similar to Boyd’s version of a young Charlie Parker. The need to express does not exist for Bloom except in so far as it makes his product valuable; his passion is the wide-eyed expression of a repressed capitalist finally allowed to run wild. And yet his skill with a camera develops. Is that talent? Given that he had no specific desire to be an artist, what does it say that Bloom was effectively thrown onto that track? Does passion matter?
What pulsates through both Nightcrawler and The Holler Sessions is a strange sort of desperation. The people who play or shoot are fueled by need, both to express and to escape poverty. And those who rely on these creators are desperate to consume that work.
These questions resonate deeply because the question Why make art? lingers in the back of my mind whenever I dive into a new project. It’s a ton of work to bring something to life on stage, and ego and identity can get in the way of honestly asking ourselves why we do it. The questions of why we make work and what work an audience would be desperate to consume is crucial. There must be a fundamental difference between collaborating meaningfully and making skillful yet inhuman work, between the work of Charlie Parker and the fictional work of Lou Bloom. That difference emerges from value; it can't just be the whims of capitalism, the motive to make our work profitable. There must be a higher purpose.
The final moment of The Holler Sessions is magic. What had been a one-man show suddenly becomes more than that, placing those who play and those who consume inches away from each other. It then lets them play and consume at the highest level, with true joy. The ability to realize something joyous on stage? That must be talent.