Featured post

Monday, June 20, 2016

Chapter 6 Belief, Bias and Common Humanity. Meditation on Playwriting

Créativité, l'inspiration et Genius    Comment fonctionne l'improvisation

Skidmore is indubitably the most annoying person I’ve ever met.  Apart from his habit of trying to borrow money off me, he is nearing the end of a part time creative writing course at Bournemouth University so he imagines that it behoves him to question every aspect of my life as a writer.  The annoying thing is that sometimes he entangles me into that sort of wrangle that gets under my skin and has me lying awake at two o’clock in the morning trying to justify my existence.  The even more annoying thing being that at that time he is probably just getting into his stride at the poker table and couldn’t give a toss for what I’m worrying about.

 “What’s the big deal about being an artist, then?  This whole writing thing is a piece of cake.  Why have I just spent all this dosh just to find out that any Tom Dick or Harriet can be a genius?” He said with a dismissive wave and disappeared to meet up with his current floozy in some bar or other.

This is my answer to him.  Of course, it would have been better if he’d been there to hear it.

Absolutely. Creativity is part of every human’s makeup and Everybody is blessed with genius. Creativity is the ability we all have to gather a few bits and pieces and make something that might be pleasing or useful to ourselves and, possibly, to others.  Those bits and pieces may be words or pencil marks or pebbles or something altogether grander and more robust making use of tonnes of concrete, timber, steel or aluminium.  The creation itself may have explosive qualities, it may save a life or serve some other function or it may just exist.  In other words, creativity is the spark that motivates pretty well everything we do or make anew.  So, let’s admit it, there is nothing magical or out of the ordinary about creativity.  It is the ability to create that, given the right conditions, we all have.  Children are always mucking about with stuff and everything they do or make is entirely new to them.  Give a child a muddy puddle and some twigs and leaves and they will create a whole world. But this capacity doesn’t leave us suddenly when we reach adulthood.  We may just have to look for it deeper within ourselves.

In a similar way, genius refers to the attendant spirit that is allocated to everyone at birth.  Originally it meant an actual God or angel who presided over our destiny in life.  It became a tutelary spirit. The word itself is associated with the Arabic Jinn or Genie (of which more later).  From this is derived the idea of one’s natural character or tendency.  A person is not A genius but possesses a genius or has genius within them.  That genius can be looked on as unusual and remarkable or it can comprise some perfectly natural ability or inclination that is generally taken for granted.     In other words, I’m using the term “genius” to imply some sort of personal inclination or particular ability. I am not trying to measure or value one manifestation of genius against another.  Einstein (why do we always use Einstein when talking about genius?) had a particular genius for visualising problems but he did not (as far as I know) have a genius for playing the banjo. (I bet somebody lambasts me on Twitter for not knowing about Einstein’s blue-grass skills) You may have a genius for personal relationships, caring for someone or fixing shelves. Or in Skidmore’s case for rubbing me up the wrong way.

The trick, of course, is recognising your personal genius and using it and, certainly, practising it so that it grows and develops. 

What’s more We actually do musicians or architects or cooks a severe disservice when we call them geniuses.  This implies that they are mere celebrities that have been gifted with a weird ability.  It's as though their skill and craft is something they have no control over. But genius in itself achieves nothing. In fact, these people have taken the genius that is within them and worked hard with it to create a conduit for their particular style of creativity, a vehicle for the novel Idea that we all applaud. Genius may be particular to the individual and is the product of their self awareness and practice of it but we all have it.

The other two terms I’m using, Improvisation and inspiration are instrumental.  They are the means by which we create or exhibit our genius.  They are the ways in which our creative genius manifests itself.  And they work closely together.

But first, let us talk about the thing itself, the artwork, the piece of architecture, the scientific discovery, the new way of thinking.  In the same way a baby is created by the coming together of two cells, the new invention or idea is formed by the coming together of two previous ideas.  The baby has characteristics utterly unique but which derive from both parents.  And in the same way that a baby is the product of its parent cells. The new idea is never completely novel but derived from generations of ideas stretching back through the centuries.  And the more distant the original ideas from each other the stronger and more powerful the progeny.  This is in some way analogous to the natural world in which, if two distant plant species can be encouraged to breed together, the outcome can exhibit an extraordinary strength called hybrid vigour.

The success or failure of this creative flow of tender hybrid ideas is the ability of the gardener to discriminate, to pick out those plants which will have this hybrid vigour and which will produce the most pleasing or useful result.  This ability to discriminate is crucial.  It is the exercise of choice which gives value to a creation. The human services thinker John O’Brien says “Choice defines and expresses individual identity”. The process we call art is the exercise of choice and it is, again, open to everyone.  The choices we make define us as people and what we are as people defines the choices we make.

Art is choice.  Every artwork is the result of a series of choices made by the artist.  These choices range far beyond what particular colour a painter uses on his or her palette.  What aspect of the subject do they choose, what mood, what does she include and what does she leave out?  Why does she make a mark just here and not over there? And so on with every other form of artistic endeavour.  In a play, what particular moments in a narrative does the writer select to dramatise?  What characters and what characteristics do they exhibit that makes them part of the story?  The artist is consciously or subconsciously making choices continually.  They are asking the questions who?  where? what? how?  why?  And the finished work is the unique result of those choices.  That is why no artwork can be like any other because the myriad of choices can only lead to what's known as "a deterministic chaos pattern" - the butterfly effect.

Often we cannot consciously account for the choices we make.  These unconscious choice makers we call “inspiration”. Style and choice are inextricably intertwined.  It is our unique style that enables us to make the choices we do.  The choices we make are seen by the outside world as our style. It’s probably a bit of a let off for the philosopher to be able to define “inspiration” as “a breath from God” but your style both as an artist and as a person are at the heart of what makes you an individual and different from the rest of the seven and a bit billion on the planet but whatever subconscious drivers these inspirations may derive from, they are still valid.   For me, this mysterious breath is indeed a marker of who I am as an artist.  I can judge it from that point when I am writing a play and the characters I have created suddenly take on a life of their own and head off in directions I could never have forecast. When inspiration rushes by all I can do is to hang on to my hat and follow it wherever it leads me

I love those random events and decisions that pepper our lives. Those unintended and unexpected consequences of decisions that are made on the spur of the moment or as a result of sudden twists of circumstance.  Here are three of my favourites from famous studio recording sessions:

1) Raphael Ravenscroft, booked to play a tiny part on the Gerry Rafferty “Baker Street” session, tries out the guitar part on the out of tune saxophone that he hurriedly fetches from his car.  

2) Session musicians are paid by the number of instruments they play so Herbie Flowers needing to get an extra few quid doubles his electric bass with string bass on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”

3) Al Kooper realises his guitar playing is not as good as Mike Bloomfield, so slips unnoticed into the studio to play the Hammond organ but, as he is not a natural organ player, he follows the rest of the musicians a semiquaver behind in an effort to keep up with the chords the others were playing.  They are recording “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan.  The studio manager is not impressed but on playback Dylan insists he “Turn the organ up.”

Listen to these tracks again and marvel at the power of serendipity and improvisation.  The trick is in the artist, the person who had to make the final choices of the mix, hearing those chance occurrences and to make use of them.  To seize the random happening and make it part of the whole. 

“There are people who prefer to say 'yes' and there are people who prefer to say 'no'. Those who say 'yes' are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say 'no' are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
Keith Johnstone

Improvisation is the art of creating in the moment.  Ex tempore, unplanned, at this time, in the here and now.  There is no forward planning or backward assessment.  The artist and his or her audience live in this moment with no idea of what is about to happen or where or how.  Each moment is a surprise and the reaction is new every time.  But how do we achieve that result?  That state of bliss that enables us to think or speak beyond ourselves?

There is a second meaning to improvisation, the idea of making do with whatever is at hand.  the process of devising a solution to a requirement by making-do, despite absence of resources that might be expected to produce a solution   this meaning goes a great deal deeper.  Improvisation can be seen as the process of creation itself.  it is the deliberate drawing together of two otherwise unrelated ideas to create something new.  We are back to the idea of the child playing in the muddy puddle oblivious to the world beyond.

That child playing in a puddle will make use of mud and twigs and leaves to create dams and castles and so on.  They will improvise on the theme of mud in just such a way as an electrical engineer will improvise connections with whatever materials may be to hand when needed.  This idea of making do leads to some of the fundamentals of improvisation.  Use what is to hand.  Accept what you have to work with and look to see what is possible within the limitations.  The trick here seems to be able to think iconically.  In other words, to let one thing or idea to stand for another thing.  In improvisation two levels of reality operate, the reality of thing itself and what it stands for or could be.  It becomes a metaphor.  And through metaphor we see new possibilities and different connections.

So if creativity, genius and inspiration are already there within us, is it possible to hurry this process, to make it work for us, to turn it to our advantage?  Can we encourage the discriminatory powers without becoming self-conscious and maybe self-parodying?  Can we indeed uncork the bottle and let the genie of our unselfconscious creativity out upon the world?

 In theatre, music or other performance arts there can be rules for improvisation which draw the attention of the performer to a channel leading to a new idea.  The Inspired artist will be able to spot these new channels and choose the ones that lead to a fruitful outcome. The best improvised outcomes come from a series where the choices are reduced either by necessity or by artificial rules.  Thus someone making an Improvised Explosive device uses whatever is at hand while a performer will limit the possibilities by enforcing some apparently artificial rules.  For the performer, these artificially imposed limitations are underpinned by the idea of acceptance.  Whatever happens is good and must be incorporated within the growing piece.  Ideas cannot be rejected and conscious discrimination is put on hold for a moment. This is the creative act performed ex tempore.  At this time. In the here and now.  There is no forward planning or backward assessment.  In an improvisation we live ex tempore: outside time.  And that applies just as much to the audience as to the artist.  They have no idea what is to happen next or where or how.  Each moment is a surprise and they react anew every time something occurs.

In the end, the object is the same, it is to distract the conscious mind in order to let the unconscious, inspired self go to work on the task in hand. We start to think iconically and speak metaphorically.

Inspiration can not only produce new ideas but also give us new approaches to established and often dull practices.  Done deliberately and in a structured manner, these sort of improvisations can add to performance by allowing in a more fluid, randomised element.  I saw a Shakespeare play by a company that were playing hidden impro games within the piece.  The game is to attach a clothes peg to another member of the cast on stage.  The performer, once they find the peg have to remove it and pass it on unseen. Obviously the company must have superb discipline and the improvisation must be entirely at the service of the piece.  In other words, no knowing winks or character drop outs.  For the audience the play was perfectly acted but there was a frisson about the performance that made the evening electric.  The impro game distracts the actor's conscious mind from the wobbly set, the spider hanging from the lighting bar, the member of the audience eating cheese and onion crisps.  The actor exists in the moment. The text and the delivery of it becomes at one with the subconscious where it allows a true emotional engagement with the words as they are uttered.

We are all aware of that sort of trance that ensues when we become fully and deeply engaged in an activity.  Time is suspended and we seem to have superhuman powers of creativity.  The genie is at work within us and the breath of God fills us so that the creative act pours from us like honey.

The improvised moment can direct us into that state by a set of games that we call rituals. We all understand the form and intention and we have confidence that every other participant is doing the same thing at the same time. The ritual guides us and pulls us so that we lose all sense of self and become the process, the conduit for divine inspiration.

In “The Archeology of Ritual” Evangelos Kyriakidis says that a ritual is a set activity (or set of actions) that, to the outsider, seems irrational, non-contiguous, or illogical. The term can be used also by the insider or performer as an acknowledgement that this activity can be seen as such by the uninitiated onlooker.  In other words, it includes and excludes at the same time.

Composer Roddy Skeaping says "With improvisation, however, we are involved in a process of creation going on right here and now, there is no one better or more informed about the emerging live m creation than those who are making it happen through their creative and critical faculties. In our own terminology we refer to this as ‘Live Creation’. Because Live Creation is a group effort, a performance is a social event, created through the merging of the sum total of the cultural background of all who participate. Further to this, there is no need for any undue reverence towards the thing created because it is designed to be enjoyed in the moment of creation, not as an art-object to be stored, reproduced or sold. Each event is therefore unique and you have to be there to appreciate it. Not there and you miss it. The great thing about improvised art installations of the Live Creation category is that if you like it you’ll come along and enter into the spirit of it and if you don’t you’ll vote with your feet and stay away. This way we hope to grow our audience through facilitating an event that is both fun and meaningful”.


So do we give up our creativity to the Gods of chance entirely?  Do we merely find the finished piece rather than make it?  This is what I was banging on about in Chapter 3 when I was talking about engagement.  That is, engagement with the work we are making and with the world we are making it in.  We may not be able to envision the final product before we start out but we know the general direction we are taking to get there.  We have closed it round with some parameters of what we would like to see and feel at the end but the improvisation of the writing will carry us off into unexpected directions and we must exercise our choice as to whether those new circumstances are a complete dead end or an important waymark on where we want to get.  We throw ourselves into the sea and start swimming towards the horizon but the current will carry us at a tangent from our expected course and we surface on an island that may have interesting new monsters roaming on it.  This vague sense of direction that encompasses my work is usually represented by a stage picture, a certain style or, as I call it, a taste of what the finished piece will be like.   Perhaps I could explain that better by saying that I can visualise the gap in the cosmos that this piece will fill. It is almost a way of saying I know what use it will be put to.  For me the justification of a piece of art is that it fits neatly into space where nothing else will fit.  This is what brings joy to the creator and the watcher or listener. It is almost as though I start with a Platonic ideal or form of what the piece will be but it is only through the actions of creativity, genius, improvisation, outward intervention and choice that I can bring the ideal into Substantial reality.    In our writing we create a form of reality that gives an echo of the ideal we have been aiming for.

But the artwork is not yet finished when we have done with it.  An artwork only exists as a piece of art when it is seen by a viewer, a reader, a watcher and they have made a reaction to it.  The result of the choices the artist has made should elicit a response in a viewer and it can only be called an artwork when it has gained that response.  The response may not be entirely positive.  It may be tedium or disgust.  The viewer may be upset or unnerved but those are still valid responses and they make the work a piece of art.  One can argue that any made object that elicits a response is an artwork.  It may be bad artwork but it is still an artwork. 

Perhaps it's not appropriate to try and divide artwork into good and bad but we are conscious as a viewer that something is not right and it's worth trying to explain that unhappy feeling we get.   We can divine bad art because the maker has been too self-conscious.  It is too mannered, too well thought out.  The artist has not allowed for the random inspiration that gives it life and attractiveness.

The viewer or audient is also making choices.  Apart from the immediate emotional response to the artwork there is the matter of what angle to see it from, what part of the work to embrace first. With a piece of music, the listener may elect to follow a particular line or to concentrate on a particular part of the soundscape. Particular sounds will resonate with memories or emotions that belong to that listener alone. In the same way every artwork is infinitely different because of the artist’s choices in making it, then every viewing will be different because of the myriad changes in environment and the reactions of other viewers or listeners present, the number of times it has been viewed already and so on.

Roderick Skeaping’s music theatre company Le Collectif International des Improvisateurs (Le Collectif) encourages these different audience viewpoints by encouraging the use of cameras and phones to record and stream from the many points of view available to them.  Their many responses are recorded and fed back into the proceedings.  A particular audience member can thus influence the whole course of the event by drawing attention to details completely unseen by other audience members and even the performers. This can operate a sort of feedback loop where everyone can be drawn into entirely new and different responses to what is occurring.  Individual audience members are thus shaping the event as it progresses and adding to the deterministic chaos as much as the artist.  This inherent chaos means that we can never forecast the outcome of our performance.  The outcome must necessarily be uncontrollable and the process must take precedent over product.  The playwright in creating the basis for a piece of theatre will need to be the improvising creator but also making precise choices as to what is to be part of the finished plan and what left out.