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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Creative Conversions

When projects are successful, people get congratulated. This just happened to me. Opera McGill's concluding production this past March - usually a series of performances of just one opera - was of a different nature. Far from any regular production, in fact, anywhere.

It was an opera "binge" festival. I believe the first of its kind. Seven operas in twenty-four hours in five different venues (three on campus and two quite off-campus, non-traditional operatic spaces) with forty plus students singing over fifty roles. We called it the "Opera B!NGE Festival!"

It was my idea entirely, I state humbly. The idea came to me last year while binge-watching Game of Thrones. Why not binge on opera, I wondered, since that's how we are all ingesting our entertainment via Netflix. When I texted Russell Wustenberg (Opera McGill's PSM) with the sentence "I've had a great idea", I meant it. When do any of us every feel we've had an idea worth of the word "great", let alone decide to share the idea with others? Sharing is the tricky part!

Like many great ideas (like all ideas, actually), you have to decide to do the work necessary to figure out how to actually make it happen. How to plot what is needed, create the moving parts necessary, put them into place, pay for it, plan for it, balance artistic options, make it exciting. But mostly, you have to sell the idea to others.

Selling creativity. Selling ideas. Selling potential. Did any of us get into the arts thinking we'd have to sell ideas?  And just so I'm being clear about my feelings on the subject: selling your ideas totally sucks.

It's the hardest thing about my life. Walking into an office or meeting and selling my "vision". Sitting with others and talking about plans I've imagined in order to get a critical mass of approval, or at least the thing that hangs in the air most often, the "well, if you think that might work and can pay for it and if it's something that you think might be successful and if it's not going to cause too much difficulty with others and if it's something that won't harm any kittens and if it's something that no one will think is offensive and, and, and, and, and..." is truly a hard thing on most people's psyches.

It's exhausting.

For you see, any great idea that I've had in the last decade has been met with resistance. Sometimes quite a lot of resistance. Oftentimes from surprising areas, oftentimes unbeknownst to me until after the fact when I'm told "I didn't think this one would work, but hey -- congrats!". Only occasionally have I been told "Yes! Excellent idea. Go for it!". Usually it's a struggle to prove that my {brilliant} idea might have merit.

This isn't the case for my regular ideas. You know, the ideas all of us have that help continue our various successes in our varied careers. Those ideas are usually accepted as a matter of course after a little bit of conversation. For me, it'd be ideas like deciding to do a double-bill of Puccini, or bringing in a guest director who's with it and young and fresh, or making casting choices that are common-sensical. I often find that these regular ideas get masqueraded around as "brilliant" ideas usually because they are decidedly not brilliant. They are comforting, and many people mistake comfort with brilliance. 

Brilliant is scary. Brilliant is innovative. Brilliant is the unknown. Brilliance takes a specific kind of creativity.

Creative ideas scare people. They scare creative people, strangely. The path of most resistance usually is found in, or comes from, those people deemed artistic in some way, those actually in the arts. It seems that inspiration is not something many creative-types take to when they are supposed to be the standard bearers of the creative arts. 

And let me be really honest here -- oftentimes, I resist creative or brilliant ideas because I may not fully understand them, or feel they might take something away from my program, or may be beyond my capacity to understand the scope of said idea. Resistance is easily found when it comes time to create something others may not fully understand.

So selling the brilliant idea is about communication. It's about a conversation. It's about conversion

My friend and colleague, Paul Yachnin, is in the midst of a huge multi-year research project: Early Modern Conversions. (Check out the site, it is simply an AMAZING project: Early Modern Conversions Site ) He and I have spent some time discussing the ideas of conversion, as well as discussing creativity over the years. Often these discussions involve oysters on the half shell and a bit of vodka, but almost always our conversations end up with me being slightly converted in my thinking to his way of thinking, or at least to a newer hybrid way of thinking about something.

Conversion and Conversation. These words are related. As Paul writes on his site: "The ability to convert is uniquely human. When we awaken to a new faith, join a new political movement, or take on a new identity, we exercise our freedom to reinvent ourselves and also to become who we were always meant to be."

And so we converse with others to convert them to our way of thinking in order to bring about a new idea into our world. For me, that means selling, sorry -- talking -- with others to try to awaken in them the seed of an idea that I discovered inside myself. This is exciting when it all goes well. When you're being misunderstood, or thwarted in some way, this is decidedly not an exciting thing. Luckily for me, my powers of persuasion usually go hand in hand with my level of passion needed to bring the idea into being.

So next time you have an idea, write it down! And then go to someone else - a friend, colleague, family member - and try to have a conversation about your idea. Let the idea live, though. Don't try to shoot holes through it, since every idea is quite vulnerable when first birthed. Ideas need nourishment and community. The brilliant ideas need even more. They especially need time; time to grow, pop through the soil, breathe some air, see some light. All ideas are seedlings that need the various stages of growth in order to really end up being something worthwhile. 

Additionally, creativity needs to convert not just others, but the person who initiated the effort in the first place. We are converted by our ideas. We are awakened by them. And if they are solid ideas worthy of boundless effort, they can convert others, awaken them. And certainly the world needs some awakening, eh?