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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Creating Creativity

The Creative Process or How To Create Creativity!

Lately I've been reading up on the creative processes and work rituals of famous writers, scientists, and artists. All interesting, all common sense.

A few commonalities emerge, and of course it set my mind to thinking about my own creative process, as well as rethinking the process currently in fashion in the operatic rehearsal spaces across North America, especially my own opera lab, Wirth Opera Studio.

First, the commonalities:
1) Caffeine at the rising. Gertrude Stein was "prescribed" coffee and drank it (lovingly prepared by Alice) every morning - even though she didn't like it. So many writers rose and mentioned drinking coffee regularly. This was long before Starbucks glutted the street corners of our cities.

2) Daily scheduled secluded sessions. No matter the genre (Richard Strauss was just as methodical as Mark Twain or Monet), this seems to be THE factor in success. Waiting for the mood or muse to strike, waiting for inspiration to kiss your brow, nothing works like the habitual process. Some talked about creating every day, no matter what drivel sprang. It's the daily "practice" (as many referred to this idea) that brings the openness needed to create at any substantial, qualitative, or successful level.

3) Time. "The days are long, but the years are short" (Gretchen Rubin). Get it?  If not, think about it. It's easy to put off the creative process because there's SO much other stuff that seems important. But if you're sitting there dreaming about being an artist, a singer, a conductor, etc., you can't procrastinate giving yourself a daily routine of practice (whether this be literal practicing, or meditating, or creating, or connecting the dots about your artistry) because you'll turn around twice and the semester will be gone, the summer program will be over, and the next thing you know it's a year later...

4) Confidence. Knowing that there'll be days of total shit. Huge moments of failure to move forward in your craft, knowledge, or process are part of the creative process. I couldn't create without the confidence that my bad days are part of what make my good days really good, and sometimes, actually brilliant. Confidence and courage are linked here. The courage to move into a scene from the wrong direction, for instance, can sometimes illuminate exactly what the scene does NOT need thereby making clear as day what it does need. One can fail, one can succeed, but one should do both with confidence.

5) Breaks. Many famous folk took regularly scheduled breaks. Twain took Sundays off to spend the day, and his focus, on his family. John Crosby (founder of Santa Fe Opera) told a story that Richard Strauss stopped composing at a certain time every day, no matter where he was in his composing (I always imagine him a few bars before the climax in the Rosenkavalier trio, putting his pen down... REALLY?!) Breaks are super important to the creative process. When Vincent, Ginette, and I are designing a show (usually over a table strewn with fashion books, architecture books, intense Quebec fromage, half-eaten baguette, Alsatian wine, while watching snippets of movies) we take breaks to cook, talk about vacation fantasies, or to discuss our children. Breaks, for me, are integral to being creative. They are integral to my staging processes as well.

6) Humor. Stop taking yourself so seriously folks! Laughter is the key to getting everyone in a room relaxed. I know this after years of public speaking. Why do people tell me they love my talks? Humor. It certainly not because I'm a featured TED speaker...  It sets people at ease and makes them realize that although I'm there to talk about something nominally taken as "serious" (opera), and that I'm seen as an academic, i.e. "professorial" personality, I simply refuse to take myself seriously. It's the difference between knowing what is serious and what is solemn. Serious doesn't preclude laughing. (Frankly, solemnity shouldn't proscribe humor either.) However, I can't tell you how often young singers, young directors, and especially young conductors (!), confuse the serious and daunting task of creating within the operatic art form construct with being taken seriously by others. This is seen quickly by most as pomposity. Whether your process happens within a group (the normal operatic rehearsal) or is more of a solitary experience, humor is important. Levity. Lightness. Smiling. The great Buddhist teacher Thích Nhãt Hahn instructs his meditation students (another process almost always referred as "practice") to breathe in and think "Calm the body" and then breathe out and think "Smile". Try it next time there's anxiety about your process -- anything from struggling to sing a high Z to creating an emotional high point in a blocking rehearsal. Breathe. Exhale. Smile.

To quote my favorite movie: "Someone tell a joke."

My creative process often involves citing or quoting or being inspired by movies like "Moonstruck". Either for character study, finding an objective, looking for a metaphor, basic connectivity stuff.  Or I'll search for ways to connect a scene by Mozart, or sometimes a whole opera,  to a piece of architecture, a painting, a film moment, or a poem. This search happens in the shower and then during my morning commute to the University. It happens while cooking dinners. It especially happens during talks with my wife, a most insightful individual. I call this "wrapping my mind around it." It's when I get that "A-Ha!" moment and things make sense.

Sometimes this moment is as simple as seeing a round lamp illuminated, or deciding that Cosi makes more sense in the context of the 60s sexual revolution, or that the nuns ARE the convent.  But it's an important process that I do not rush. I know it takes time -- days and weeks. I don't go and jump at the first idea. I've seldom, if ever, ended up using the first idea. My 60s Cosi started out with the idea of using Beach Boys' songs as an allegorical arch... Brilliant initially, but later on, not. I let the idea percolate in my mind. Sometimes I share the idea and see the reactions. I almost always share these ideas with my wife. I share them with Vincent and Ginette and Serge, also with students. Then things mutate, alter, move. Then, at some point, it's time to direct.

When it comes time to direct an opera, things change dramatically. My initial process is highly solitary. I think through every scene. Often times it's akin to choreography. I work out scenes physically. I map scenes out on a computer program (SketchUp) in 3D. I type out the flow of characters, sometimes down to the color of lights I envision for each scene. It's minutely detailed.

Then I block the scene. Where each individual goes. For a Boheme 2nd act, I decide ahead of time where every one of those choristers will be, when they will move, and to where. If you don't, it's chaos and time is wasted. Directors who can't direct chorus scenes usually fail because they haven't taken the time to think at this basic level. Time. Work.

But often times during the actual, and much more collaborative process of staging rehearsals, I become fixed in the moment and have been known to throw out all of my carefully finessed blocking in order to flow with either an inspiration, or to take into consideration a colleague's suggestion, or because sometimes the best laid plans simply aren't going to work. I find flexibility is extremely important to this collaborative process. Inflexible people often find themselves trying to be successful in creative arenas, like music. I've found that often times inflexible folk make their way into the creative arenas, dumbfounded by flexibility as a viable process, and try to force their inflexibility onto us unsuspecting artists in the room.

Inflexibility in the arts? As they say in Fargo: "You betcha"!

Nothing kills creativity as quickly as inflexibility. It is a petrifying quality in nature. Trees survive storms because they bend. Growing ferns unfurl their fiddleheads in a twirl that has as much to do with the Fibonacci sequence, as an innate ability to go with the flow. That which gathers, scatters, and vice-versa.  Youth in nature is inherently flexible. It's the old tree that breaks under stress. It's rigidity in body - and mind - that kill creativity.

So you'd think that musicians working in an art form like opera would understand this. You'd think that those nurturing our young singing ferns would refrain from methodologies that "create" inflexibility, either in analytical, theoretical fields or in the more artisanal studies involving techniques that lead to the more focused goals like the artistic pursuit of "making music", but I find they don't. In fact, a big part of teaching and mentoring  lately seems to be in making young people believe there is a method to success. A path to a career.

Yes, there is a path, but it is only clearly viewed by turning around and seeing the path you've created, not followed. It's like the trail left by a boat on a lake. You're not following a path on the lake, but your path can clearly be seen by turning around. You're hopefully headed towards a goal, seen or imagined, on the other side of the lake.

Those of us who've been around long enough can turn around to gaze on our wakes in our watered lake of life. We often do. However, I think those pursuing dreams or life goals should keep their eyes ahead, not behind. Don't worry about the past mistakes, don't get anxious about the future. Spend your time in the present.

You can do this by heading into a practice room, opening a book, spending time in a museum, working out, walking into a new part of town, experimenting with a new food or recipe, listening to music you've never focused on. The list is endless, but your time here is not.

So give yourself some space and time, some short term goals, allow yourself to fail, be confident that you will fail too, and breathe into a smile. I'm going to spend the summer thinking about how to help the flow of creativity in my personal and professional life. And I'm going to BBQ!