‘Yes And’ Adaptability And Gratitude For The Improv Of Life

The world is unpredictable and chaos is rampant. In order to thrive, we have to remain adaptable and nimble. How? The answer lies in improv.

Let’s set the scene:

It’s your birthday and some close friends are out having a few drinks when you notice that, just around the corner, an improv comedy show is about to start. Intriguing, right? Well, you all decide that you could use a few more laughs in your life- so you head on over. The show begins when suddenly, an actor on stage asks for a suggestion of topic from the audience. Your friend, let’s call her Stacy, is bold by nature (especially after a few martinis), so she calls out “Velociraptors!”

The actors on stage, who were previously doing a bit about grocery shopping, find themselves bobbing and weaving through the cereal aisle in order to avoid a seemingly inevitable and carnivorous, Jurassic fate. By the end of the night, your abs were so sore that you could cancel your gym membership.

It’s a goofy scenario but the actors on stage were following an important pillar of improv comedy: ‘Yes And’. Simply put, ‘Yes And’ is the act of taking what is given to you and running with it. What if, when Stacy called out, ‘Velociraptors!’ the actors on stage had said, “Yeah, no.”

*crickets*

The scene wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Instead, by employing ‘Yes And’, the actors were able to productively build on anything that was thrown at them. In improv, any suggestion or scenario given to you is a gift (regardless of whether or not it fits your original vision for the scene). ‘Yes And’ is the recognition and acceptance of that gift. The ‘Yes And’ mentality is such a fundamental aspect of improv, the improv troupe at my university goes by the name of ‘Yes Anderson’ (which I think is hysterical).

You may not be performing improv comedy on the regular but the ‘Yes And’ mentality is just as applicable to the nonperformer as it is to the cast of SNL. How?

Simply put, ‘Yes And’ is a way to respond to whatever life happens to throw your way. It’s synonymous with adaptability. In these wild times, it seems like complications, roadblocks, and unforeseen setbacks litter the landscape. When we encounter one, it can be easy to get frustrated. Unplanned developments don’t have to ruin your day, though, especially when they might be gifts in disguise. Instead of resenting the situation, accept it and build on it. For example:

Yesterday, I trudged toward the subway after a long day of classes. I was tired and wanted nothing more than to go home and lie down. After a lengthy wait, the train clumsily ambled its way into the station and I was able to hop on. About half an hour goes by when I look up and notice that the train is going uptown, not downtown. I had wasted thirty minutes going the wrong direction, effectively adding an hour to my commute. A roadblock.

Initially, I was beyond upset with myself- but then that beautiful phrase passed through my cranium… ‘Yes And’. I had the opportunity for an adventure. The subway had spit me out around Madison Square Garden- so I built on that. I explored for awhile, saw some sights, stopped in a few stores that I had never seen before, and left with five new records that I caught on sale (one of which being a ‘They Might Be Giants’ album). I was ecstatic. So ecstatic, that I spent the rest of the night listening to ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul’ instead of allowing the directional blunder a few hours prior suck the life out of me.

‘Yes And’. It’s a valuable perspective. Next time you find yourself thrown by the chaos of the world around you, give it a try. Maybe you’ve been offered a fantastic opportunity.

Comment your thoughts down below and contribute to the discussion! Have you ever met a tough situation with ‘Yes And’? If you enjoyed the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

The Little Things: Appreciating Tiny Blessings

I almost set my apartment on fire last night.

I should probably provide some context. I’ve been very busy lately. With Zoom University in full swing, my plate is so full you’d think it was Thanksgiving.

Schedule? Packed

Body? Fatigued

Brain? Missing ($30 dollar reward to whoever can return it to me)

Still, a fella has to find time to cook up some dinner. So last night, in true college student fashion, I decided to make the easiest and most economical dinner I could. I had bread, butter, and a toaster at my disposal. My tired brain rumbled for a moment and as my mental cogs shed their cobwebs I was hit with a stroke of brilliance: Make Toast!

Boom: I’m a culinary Macgyver.

While the toast was, well, toasting, I decided to give my friend, Marc, a call. Maybe it was because of my general exhaustion or because of my devotion to our riveting conversation but regardless, I managed to neglect my toast (soon to be charcoal) as it heated up to stupid proportions. Suddenly, the fire alarm goes off and I’m forcibly ripped from my phone call to address the repercussions of my inattentiveness.

Once the toast, more brick than bread at this point, was ejected from the toaster and my fire alarm satiated, I took a moment to appreciate my culinary carnage. The bread had past the point of golden glow and was comfortably settled into an obsidian territory.

I ate it anyways.

So why did I divulge this epic saga? Because it makes me laugh. Even though I was having a hectic week and my toast burnt, I was able to find humor in the misstep. I was able to appreciate the little things. Appreciation of the little things- it’s a life saver. I know that it can seem like a cliche, the kind of thing to appear on a sappy, motivational IG post. However, it’s actually a vital tool for making it through the day, especially when the waters are choppy.

Human beings have a tendency to look toward the negative. That only makes sense, considering that thousands of years ago- to ignore the negative aspects of our lives was to die. If you were locked in an epic struggle with nature for your very survival, which of the following is more deserving of your attention: the pretty flowers or the race to find enough food to survive the week? Hint: it’s not the flowers.

As such, we’re hardwired to pay attention to the stress in our lives. Sometimes, that stress can seem like a hurricane, enveloping our entire day- maybe even the week. It can be easy to forget the little things that go right, make us smile, or laugh. To avoid that spiral, I like to pay extra attention to the little things: the pretty flowers, the comfortable weather, the nice man on the subway. The world becomes a brighter place.

Appreciate the little things.

Saying Vs. Doing: Following Through On Best Laid Plans

During the school year, I live in an apartment with three friends. We’re all acting majors and we all possess distinctly different personalities. It’s an incredibly unique space that we share and I’ve affectionately named it The Citadel (a name that has not yet caught on with my roommates). The Citadel is a lively little home- ideas bouncing around as though we were trying to hit one another. Each of us enjoy our own personal projects- things we’d like to achieve or come to fruition. In my experience, only a fraction of the ideas thrown around actually take root. The rest splatter across the walls and are lost to memories or journal pages for another time.

Generally speaking, that’s entirely normal. There are plenty of ideas out there that aren’t suited for reality, not in that given moment anyways. However, there are other ideas and goals that don’t make it off the landing strip for other reasons entirely. They usually begin with something like let’s make this happen or wouldn’t it be great if… and they usually remain there, in that boneyard of theoretical language. The theoretical boneyard isn’t limited to grand ambitions either, many smaller visions are laid there to rest as well. I’m finally going to write my bestselling novel and I’m going to work out a few times a week share the same tomb.

I began thinking on why it can be difficult to follow through on even the best laid plans. Easier said than done resonates for a reason but I’m not content with letting that be the end of the discussion. I don’t have any definite answers, no silver bullet for the beast of lost opportunity, nobody does. Still, I wanted to share my playbook for following through. (This post isn’t necessarily about procrastination or productivity, but if you’d like to read more about that you can check out one of my previous posts on the topic, here.)

So why do even the best laid plans fall apart? There are a few reasons, one of which being momentum. When you come up with a fantastic idea or set an inspiring goal, it is riddled with excitement. New prospects are, by their very nature, exciting. They’re the embodiment of opportunity and opportunity is betterment. It’s easy to feel excited about new opportunities while they’re in the theoretical space because, well, thinking up change doesn’t require all that much effort. The moment effort is involved, when push-back rears its ugly head, that motivation that supported your industriousness retreats. This tends to be where most campaigns of improvement die, at this first tier. In order to succeed or follow through, an idea must face the three tier gauntlet.

Tier 1: Conceptualize

You’ve got your idea. You’re motivated and unstoppable.

Tier 2: Implement

You let that idea tentatively dip a toe in the water. That water is cold- which is why it can be enticing to retreat back to tier 1.

Tier 3: Achieve

You’ve established a rhythm and are reaping the benefits of your discipline, now all you have to do is keep it up.

Like I said, most ideas don’t survive the second tier. Even the faint notion of embarking on something you’re excited about can be daunting- and for good reason. The moment a goal touches tier 2, it can fail. Failure is hard, demoralizing, scary. In order to avoid that kind of heartache and wasted effort, people like to live in tier 1, myself included. This is the false promise of the first tier. It allows you to live in the excitement of concept without the risk of failure. What it doesn’t tell you is that, while the first tier can be exciting, it’s hollow. There is no opportunity to be found in conceptualizing if not followed through on. You may not fail, sure, but you’ll never succeed.

While the risk of failure is both consciously and unconsciously taxing, it is worth the bargain of change. I’ve always disliked the devil I know beats the devil I don’t argument because it isn’t true. It assumes that there, will in fact, be a devil ahead. There might be, but there might not. Resigning yourself to the devil you know won’t change anything. Exploring the unexplored, at the very least, presents an opportunity for betterment.

It should also be said that, while not particularly fun, failure isn’t a bad thing. Failure is a stepping stone toward success. Every time you fail, celebrate a bit. Nobody is expecting you to get it right on the first try, nobody but yourself, anyways. We learn through failure. When we fall short, we now know what doesn’t work, at the very least. This allows us to reorient ourselves and try again with a greater chance of success. To fear failure is to fear learning.

Implementing plans takes effort, it isn’t easy. It won’t always be so exciting either. The best way to push through is to maintain a rhythm. Set a detailed plan in place and recognize your own ability to follow through. Human-beings are tougher than we give ourselves credit for. It’ll pay off in the end, either directly or indirectly- so go out there the try it.

Comment your thoughts down below and contribute to the discussion! If you enjoyed the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

You’re More Creative Than You Think: The Myth of Left Brain

I’m about as left-brained as they come.

I’m a numbers guy.

I’m not creative.

I’ve encountered a good few folks with the ‘creative vacancy’ mindset and, without fail, I’m always perplexed by it. It’s no secret that there is a healthy portion of the population that firmly believe their reservoir of creative juices are as dry as Arizona. I wanted to address that line of thinking in this post, as well as why I staunchly disagree with it.

I’m willing to bet that everyone who has ever announced their general lack of creative spirit was a human being. If the individual in question is your goldfish, tough luck, this post isn’t for you. But if they were a living, breathing person, then odds are they’re just as creative as the next guy. Why? Because human beings are creative by nature.

We can trace it back to the very roots of the human species. Overtime, we’ve become very good at, well, creating. Our survival depended upon it. About 2.5 million years ago, our ancestors produced the first tools. They were multi-purpose- meant for hunting, digging, and all other important caveman activities. The moment that mankind began using tools was significant, as it marked our first, tentative steps toward creative thinking. We were able to think abstractly. Making a primitive hammer requires a lot of ingenuity and brainpower, if you think about it.

First, our caveman friend had to see an abstract problem.

Next, he had to envision a solution.

Third, he had to assemble something where there was once nothing.

Boom, Gronk is Michelangelo. The creation of the first tools could only be accomplished by mentally sifting through the components of the natural world around us and then assembling them- first abstractly within our heads, and then concretely. That takes creativity. The human tapestry is woven with threads of creative thinking.

When people say they aren’t creative, it is likely code for I can’t paint and write poetry or I’m not great at coming up with ideas.

I hate to be the burster of left-brained bubbles but- you can. I read a fantastic passage from Impro, a book by Keith Johnstone (yes, I’ve referenced it in multiple posts, the book is great and you should give it a read). Essentially, it went like this:

He has a friend who claims they aren’t creative. He disagrees. To prove their creative capacity, he asks them to shut their eyes and visualize the following story as he tells it (you can do this too):

“Imagine a man walking along the street. Suddenly, he hears a sound and turns to see something moving in a doorway.”

The story is short and sweet. Johnstone then goes onto ask his friend questions about the story. What were they wearing? What did the street look like? etc. Of course, the listener had answers to all of these questions. Where did those answers come from? They weren’t in the original text of the story. They were aspects of the mental picture that they assembled when trying to visualize what they were being told. That’s creativity.

If you’ve ever read a book and then been disappointed in the movie adaptation- you understand what’s going on. The movie can’t quite live up to the book because the film is the creative vision of the director. It fails to live up to the creative vision you assembled when reading the book initially. It always will because that creative vision spawned by your initial read is something unique to you.

Everyone is creative. We use creative thinking all-day, everyday. It’s only a matter of recognizing it.

Comment your thoughts down below and contribute to the discussion! If you enjoyed the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

Adapting To Change: Finding Stability During Transition

This post is a bit late as I have been journeying from Memphis back to NYC. I survived the plane ride and have officially settled back into my apartment. Large transitions like this are not typically easy, both logistically and emotionally, so I figured this a good time to write post about life transitions.

Nearly everybody has encountered a major life transition at some point or another. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve change in location either. Start a new job? Enroll in a new school? Congratulations- you’ve survived a transition. A testament to your resilience.

The world is an ever shifting landscape and so, naturally, people change things up in order to function. People adapt. If they don’t, well, just ask Blockbuster how they’re doing these days. Even though we transition often, it doesn’t mean that the process isn’t without hurdles to be jumped.

Every time I transition between NYC and Memphis I find myself a bit rattled. Routine changes, spaces are different, the people I interact with are different. Adaptability is key to survival. In this post, I want to delve into a few tactics I have for tackling change and for maintaining your goals while the world around you spins for a minute.

Defining Your Constants

When I stepped back into my apartment yesterday, my room was in disarray. The decorations that previously lit up my walls had made themselves a new home on the floor. The AC had been fixed in my absence and as such, the repairmen took a few artistic liberties in regards to the decor. First order of business? Get my room back in shape. Why?

Because my room is a constant. Transitional periods carry with them a lot of change and it can be easy to get swept away in the chaos. This is when constants become especially important. My room, to me, is one of a few constant factors that help me maintain a degree of stability during periods of change. It is my space- I can always take a step inside my room and breath for a minute (especially since they fixed the AC).

Constants don’t have to be physical, either. In fact, many constants we hold live in a more cerebral space. These come in the forms of our ideals. A few primo examples: religion, meditation, a creative outlet, calls to family, missions or goals. Personally, I find vision boards to be especially helpful. They keep you on track during times of change. What do you want? How will you achieve it? I was never too hip on vision boards until my mom asked me to make one (thanks Hollie, you’re the bomb). They work wonders. You can take a look at a vision board or two here.

Keep Up The Pace

When I first got back to the city, I was incredibly tempted to bum out for a few days. Blame it on jet-lag, homesickness, the systemic shock to my body brought on by a college diet, whatever. The mentality makes sense. Change is tiring and sometimes, when everything else is moving, you just want to sit still. That might work for some people. For me, that lull is a sleepy descent into chaos.

In the midst of change, I feel it is important to root yourself in something so you don’t lose sight of any goals you might have previously been pursuing. When in a new space or partaking in new activities- old habits and projects can easily fall by the wayside, collecting dust in the rhetoric of just let me finish this movie or I’ve got bigger things on my plate. The best way to combat this is to keep moving.

Keeping up the pace doesn’t have to be a huge ordeal. I’m maintaining the jog by writing this post that you’re reading. Others can read a book. Clean their room. Anything to stave off the sluggishness of transition. If you can go to bed even a millimetre closer to something you’re aspiring toward, you’re leaps and bounds better off than if you hadn’t.

Give Yourself A Minute

Take some time to slow down. This may seem like I’m contradicting myself but let me explain. There is a lot of value in giving yourself a moment to take stock. While the world around you his twisting and turning, consciously partaking in a moment of stillness is good. I don’t necessarily mean empty stillness. Scrolling through IG for hours doesn’t constitute ‘still’.

Reflect. Reflect on the change. What is changing? Why? How do you fit into it? Taking mental stock of the situation is an incredibly rewarding practice. Be sure to listen to yourself, lest you get swept away. Remember what it is all about- you’ll be tackling change like a champion.

How do you tackle change? Comment your thoughts down below and contribute to the discussion! If you enjoyed the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

Designing, Directing, and Disney: An Artistic Discussion With Kennon Cliche

In little over a week, I’ll be making my tentative, facemasked return to New York City– resuming University in a Covid-19 world. The pandemic has shifted what it means to get an Acting degree and while I’m thankful for the hybrid, somewhat in-person class model I’ll be returning to- I’m forced to acknowledge the fact that things will be different.

Not bad.

Not good.

But different. The pandemic has had actors, myself included, thinking about theatre differently. It has been an extraordinary exercise in resilience and fortitude. With this creative thinking comes a good deal of reflection and I find myself increasingly meditating on the allure of theatre as my return to NYC draws nearer and nearer. What purpose does it serve? What do I get out of it? What are my responsibilities to the craft, as an artist? I try to answer some of these questions in previous posts but it dawned on me that I can only answer these questions through the lens of my experience as an actor and a writer. I wanted to explore these questions with someone who connected with theatre through different means. That search for diverse discussion led me to Kennon Cliche.

Kennon is a designer and director based in Memphis, TN. They received their BFA in Theatre with a concentration in Design and Technical Production with an emphasis in Scenic and Costume Design from The University of Memphis Department of Theatre & Dance. They were also apart of an organization that helped shape my young artistic life.

I met Kennon at the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts. The Governor’s school is an audition-in residency, summer intensive program that specializes in multiple artistic mediums (music, visual art, theatre, dance, and filmmaking). I attended for theatre, Acting specifically. My time there helped me realize that I wanted to pursue a career in Acting. When I attended, Kennon was a counselor. However, back in 2013, Kennon was a student at the Governor’s School as well. A student for design.

“I remember, the night before I interviewed, I was in bed, drawing as many set designs as I could.” They recalled, “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I had never really designed a real set before.”

Kennon grew up in theatre, although they had always viewed it through the acting lens, “A lot of the theatre I was involved with back in my hometown was oriented around the actors. There weren’t any major design elements. In my high-school, we only had ten stage lights. We’d bring costumes from our closets at home.” It wasn’t until 2012, just a year prior to their admission to the Governor’s School, that they would discover an entirely different side of the theatre.

I was incredibly curious about what drew Kennon to the design aspect of theatre-making. So, naturally, I asked. They paused, attempting to put an abstract feeling into concrete words, “I felt like I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell more clearly. I’m definitely a more hands on artist, tactile, so much of it had to do with bridging the gap between creating physical art and the theatre which I had been so drawn to.”

Theatre-making has a place for all types of artists, I personally view the theatre as a melting pot where creators of all mediums can come together and give birth to something fantastic. It takes all types: musicians, story-tellers, and, of course, designers. Although, while theatre only functions when these different artists work in tandem, communication between artistic branches can be a beast to navigate. Kennon viewed it as a Tower of Babel situation, saying, “Actors and directors, they can speak so theoretically about the world in which the show takes place- it’s the scenic designer’s task to take that abstract theory and make it tactile.” Kennon welcomes this challenge, believing that process to be the most rewarding part of design.

Kennon also noted that, while trying to physically manifest the abstract, there can be a tendency to rely too heavily on the pillars of time and space. They mused about their thought process as a developing artist, “I used to think the concept of a show sat upon the pillars of time and place. Where is it? When is it? So I’d shake it up to try and make things interesting. Shakespeare in Space, or something, you know? I’d do things for the sake of being different, for a certain aesthetic, but I came to realize that concepts are only effective when they serve the story, which is something I learned while directing.”

I found it interested that Kennon mentioned directing here. I think their experience only supports the theory that the exploration of multiple theatrical roles actively improves individuals as an artists. I’ve heard time and time again that becoming a director made an individual a better actor- and vice versa.

Kennon explained how their time directing actually aided in their growth as a designer and how they had come to realize that a subtle subversion of conventional storytelling is incredibly effective. They laughed, “I finally came to understand that the concept doesn’t have to be a huge knock to the head, it can be simple, as long as it resonates with the audience and supports a part of the show.” This exploration was best displayed in a production of Lonely Planet that Kennon directed in 2018. The show, traditionally centering around the AIDS epidemic, has a cast of two men. Kennon had cast two women. “Their sex is important to the story- but I had two women. I was reviewing the script and realized that they never actually address it as AIDS, I mean its apparent- however, they only ever refer to it as ‘the disease’.” This is when Kennon’s concept for the show started to form more fully, saying, “This was around 2018, the #MeToo discussion was ramping up, protests over gun violence, the BLM movement, all of these issues were being discussed. I wanted to tackle those topics. I figured the best way to do that was to make ‘the disease’ mentioned in the show racism, sexism, police brutality. That would be our disease that we would take action against.”

Kennon wanted to stay faithful to the play however, and as such there were very few indicators surrounding the change in concept. They explained, “It was never something that blatantly appeared up in the show. Nobody was wearing anything that would suggest that message, no mention of it in the program. The intention wasn’t to be different or to shove a political message. It was a way for us to try and relate the text to something especially present today.”

Artistic vision is very important to Kennon, more specifically, the clarity of that vision. This is where our conversation turned toward outward examples of storytelling- specifically toward large budget projects. I’d describe Kennon as a very independent, innovative, tear-the-house down, anti-institutional creator. More importantly, I also think that is how they’d describe themselves. That stance bleeds into their view of major entertainment companies. Kennon thinks that, in the creation of art, the audience should not be considered too heavily. Instead, the focus should revolve around the story you want to tell. Whatever the audience thinks, well, that’s what they think. When storytellers churn out stories with the intention of ticket sales at the forefront of their mind, Kennon winces, saying, “It feels manipulative, not authentic, forced.”

None are safe, either, as Kennon began to list companies who partake in this, “Disney-Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars.” Kennon explained how they thought that, due to the attempt to please such a wide audience (for revenue), these stories lacked specificity. They were broad. The vision didn’t shine through the final product.

I didn’t agree.

So I inquired further.

I brought up the fact that, while large budget projects are tied down to an aim for mass appeal, I don’t think they sacrifice specificity. Take the movie Up, for example. It’s incredibly specific. Each character is well written, the plot is motivated by strong intentions. Nothing about Pixar films seem unspecific to me.

Kennon agreed, “They’re three dimensional, for sure. But not specific.” This is when I realized that we were each defining ‘specific’ differently. When Kennon said specific, they meant specific to the artist’s original intention. They believe that specificity is lost in large budget projects- as the art has to be filtered through the whims of countless producers in order to get off the ground. Too many voices, resulting in creative dissonance. I briefly discussed something similar in a previous post. It was an interesting take, although I’m still not sure how much I agree. Regardless, I respect Kennon’s conviction.

Out of curiosity, I asked them an absolute whopper, “If offered the chance to work on a Disney-Pixar film would you take it?”

They laughed and I could practically hear them shaking their head over the phone, “Sheesh, okay, I don’t know. I would absolutely hate it, probably. I’m a huge fan of smaller companies- A24 for example- I wouldn’t hesitate if someone reached out from there. I’d probably turn down the opportunity to direct a Disney film. What would be seen by the audience wouldn’t be my vision, it would be the vision of others. Those filters.”

Vision and integrity, they’re at the core of Kennon’s artistic pursuits. They made it clear that their draw to storytelling is one of introspection. They tell stories because the act of directing and designing helps them to know themselves. It’s about making sense of the abstract.

“I think that art is a way to observe and make sense of the abstract. Things we may not be able to mentally frame any other way. Novelists put into words what can’t be put into words. Visual artists, well, visualize it. Actors give actions to concepts that are hard to act on, hard to make sense of. There are different types of abstracts which is why we have so many art-forms.”

Kennon’s motives for creation are incredibly interesting and I think they are telling. Kennon explained, “I’ve said this before and people laugh at me when I say it. I say something and then after I’ve said it, I decided whether or not I agree with it. The same goes with art. I could make something, it could even be good, but I won’t know if I identify with it or agree with it until it is made.” When art acts as an individual’s compass, specificity of vision is important, lest you not know which direction you are going- which is likely why Kennon would never work on a Disney film. I admire the aim.

My discussion with Kennon was an interesting one… one that forced me to explore other motives for creation. There are countless types of creators, all creating in different ways. Art is fantastically accessible in that way. The conversation I had with Kennon reminded me of the developmental discussions I partook in at Governor’s School. It has reaffirmed in me that, in order to become a better artist, you have to view art across mediums. You have to discuss it as well as practice it. It’s abstract. Talking makes it tangible.

You can learn more about Kennon at https://www.kennoncliche.com/

How do you connect with art? Comment your thoughts down below and contribute to the discussion! If you enjoyed the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

Where Do Ideas Come From? Stimulating Imagination

Pulp Fiction, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Godfather. What do they have in common? They all started with good ideas. They’re imaginative. So how can I stimulate my own imagination? Where do good ideas come from?

Creativity is a muscle and the phrase ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ applies. This was at the forefront of my mind as I entered quarantine. I still had a nagging itch to exercise that muscle, although the creative outlets that I would normally make use of were not conducive to a Covid-19 world. I was without productions or artistic classes for University. I needed to shift around my mental gym.

It hit me that writing was the perfect, creative outlet for a socially distanced world. Subsequently, in the early days of quarantine, I found myself writing songs, poems, short films, and of course- this blog. Before I could begin any of those projects, though, I needed ideas. What would the poems be about? What story am I trying to tell in this short film? Ideas are the impetus for creativity. Sometimes they are conscious, other times not, but they are always present at the conception of any creative project. Strong ideas, though, can sometimes feel hard to come by. We’ve all experienced that compulsion to create but have been stopped by the ugly wall of writer’s block. So where do good ideas come from? How can we encourage creative thought? What unintentional actions are we taking that may stifle our artistic well? I wanted to explore that today and possibly come to some conclusions about how we can encourage ideas to spring up from the ground like Texan oil. It revolves around a few choices we make everyday: what we consume, self induced over-stimulation, and our ability to table certain thoughts.

Self Induced Over Stimulation

Judy Blume, the prolific young-adult author, said, “When I see people with their headphones on… I know they’re listening to music or a podcast or something- I think, oh, what a shame because that’s a time where I would get my best ideas.” The quote struck me.

Our best ideas are often born out of boredom, the lack of stimulation. The mind has freedom to wander and explore. Each mindless tap on our Instagram may stave off a base boredom for a moment or two, but it cripples the freedom our mind has to wander. Ideas need space to grow and filling that space with mindless stimuli does our artistic side a great disservice.

I know this may seem counter-intuitive. Who likes to be bored? But that is where our creative side is allowed to thrive. It has space to fill and it’ll rise to the occasion. We do it all the time, as well. I’d be hard pressed to find a single person who hadn’t caught themselves daydreaming at work or during a dull math class. Sometimes it can be productive to embrace boredom, to sit in it, instead of retreat from it like the terrible banshee it appears to be.

Does this mean I have to skip out on my favorite show? I can’t listen to music during my morning walk? Of course you can. Those things have tangible value. However, if we want ideas to grow, we need to give them a little bit of space. Find a time during the day to talk a walk without music. Sit on the porch and observe. Sit in that boredom- you’re brimming with ideas, you just can’t hear them when you’re watching your fifteenth Youtube tutorial in a row.

What We Consume

Close your eyes and try to imagine a color that you’ve never seen.

You can’t, can you? It’s maddening to try but no matter how much you rack your brain, you won’t be able to. That is because our imaginations can’t conjure up ideas that we haven’t already experienced.

But where do new movie plots come from? What about inventors? They’re creating something from nothing, aren’t they?

Well, no. They’re rearranging what they’ve already experienced into something new. The ability to abstractly conceptualize new projects by rearranging what we know is a powerful, uniquely human tool. It works a lot like a construction team building a tower- the bricks being our life experiences. If you want to make a tall tower, you’d want to have as many bricks as possible, right? If so, then you’d want to consume as much of the world around you as you can.

Experiences are the building blocks of creation. Storytellers are also people watchers. They observe. Creators look at content that interests them. Every book you read, TV show you watch, and conversation you have translate into more imaginative bricks. So… experience!

This is why well-roundedness is important. The more experiences you have that are unlike the ones you already know, the wider your creative cache to pull from becomes. Talk with someone who doesn’t think like you, genuinely listen. Not a sports fan? Play a pickup game with some friends. Want to create a really fantastic detective story? You’d better be watching a few detective films.

Over the course of quarantine, I had more time to read. It’s been a blessing. If you’re looking for a good book on creative spontaneity and imagination- I suggest Impro by Kieth Johnstone.

Bad Ideas Maybe Good Later

I grapple with this a lot. I’ll be on a walk and an idea will jump into the forefront of my mind. However, once I try to expand on it, the enthusiasm may die down. Maybe I’m not in a place where I can tell that specific story. Maybe the idea isn’t fully fleshed out. That’s okay! Don’t get rid of it. Write it down. Oftentimes, people have ideas that don’t work in the moment but they save them and employ them later. No idea is inherently a bad idea, it may just not be the right moment. Sit on it, who knows? Maybe it’ll become the next Lord of the Rings.

When do you get your best ideas? Comment your thoughts down below and contribute to the discussion! If you enjoyed the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

Does The Artist’s Intention Matter? A Debate About Creation

A gorilla fighting a man on a jet-pack. That’s what I saw this morning when I looked up at the clouds. It was a sight to behold and I regret not taking a picture of the epic, cumulonimbus clash. I wasn’t the only one witnessing the sky-based, smack-down of the century, either. Just down the path was a young couple on a walk and they too had their eyes fixed upward. I’d have asked them who they were rooting for in the overhead battle, of course, they’d probably have no idea what I was talking about. They probably saw a horse-race or an ice-cream truck in those very same clouds. That’s the nature of interpreting the abstract and assigning meaning to the inanimate. It’s incredibly subjective and that creative freedom is what makes it entertaining. If everyone looked toward the clouds and saw the same picture, people would probably stop looking at the clouds.

My interpretation of those clouds was meaningful to me, just as that couple’s interpretation likely resonated with them. Neither of our interpretations are inherently better than the other’s. Neither of us have a basis for telling the other that they are incorrect. We saw what we saw. That seems fair enough… but let’s throw a wrench in it.

Let’s say God himself descended from the heavens and said, “Hey guys. It’s me, God. That’s all well and good, but it isn’t a gorilla fighting a man with a jet-pack. It isn’t an ice-cream truck, either. It’s a golden retriever playing poker. I would know. I’m God. I made the clouds.”

Does that mean that I was wrong to see a gorilla fighting a man on a jet-pack? Does that negate the amusement and joy I received from my initial interpretation? Did I need to hear God’s intention for the clouds to derive an effective meaning from them? This is the debate about Artist Intention and it’s a sticky one.

For starters, it has to be acknowledged that, yes, artists have intentions for the works they create. They mean to evoke certain feelings or send certain messages- whether or not those feelings or messages are received in the intended fashion is a different story altogether. Still, intention is necessary for the creation of art. Without a why there is no how.

The question is, does that original intention hold any weight once the art is released to the public? Does it matter beyond its necessity for the art’s creation? I had a discussion about this with my friend, Marc Anthony. It seems we always find ourselves in these conversations at the most inconvenient hours, consuming the most convenient of foods, and conveniently- we disagreed (and thank God for that because if we didn’t this would be a rather short post).

I sat firmly in the camp of: “The artist’s intent holds no weight post release.”

He sat opposite me, in the camp of: “Yes it matters, are you stupid?”

And the great debate began.

For starters, there are two reasons I believe that the original intention behind a piece of art holds little weight.

  1. It isn’t necessary for art to function.
  2. Artists have little control over what their art becomes or what it inspires.

It isn’t necessary for art to function. When Van Gogh painted Starry Night, he didn’t leave a manual explaining what it should make the viewer feel, nor what his intention for the painting was. We can’t ask him either, he died in 1890. Regardless, though, people view and revere Starry Night. It is effective. When I look at Starry Night I feel a sense of calm, a sense of wonder. Who knows if that was Van Gogh’s original intention for the painting. For all we know, he wanted me to feel abject terror at the sight of those stars. Still, the painting works without his original intention being known. Knowing the artist’s intention isn’t necessary for art to function.

Artists have little control over what their art becomes, either. Once I create a piece of art, be it a film or a painting or a book, it will be consumed by a (hopefully) ravenous public. They’ll interpret that art through the lens of their own life experiences. It will inspire each person differently. My original intention as an artist will likely get lost along the way. At that point, who is to say that my interpretation of the work is any more valid than someone else’s? Do my words carry more gravity because I created it in the first place? I don’t see what good that does, other than squandering the beauty someone else saw in my art that I might not have particularly intended. Once released, a piece of art is its own entity, inspiring others, out of the artist’s jurisdiction.

Ironically, Marc summed up MY position with a really strong analogy: Creating a piece of art is like raising a child. You can have big dreams for that child and you can sweat, bleed, and suffer for it. Still, the moment you send that child off into the threshold of adulthood- it is its own person and your intentions for it hold little water.

Now, the artist does have some control in their ability to convey their original intention during the creation process. The more abstract a piece of art, the more interpretation is involved. The more narrow a piece of art, the more clear the artist’s original intention is. So in this way, without directly commenting, artists do maintain a degree of control over the perception of their work post release.

Of course, Marc Anthony disagreed with me. Marc and I are both creators, and art resonates with us in different ways. I’m currently in college at Pace University, studying my BFA in Acting. He is headed out to Atlanta, Georgia to achieve his artistic, filmmaking pursuits. I really respect his input on these topics as I find Marc Anthony to be an insightful person- decisive with his words. Not a single word wasted. As such, in the spirit staying true to his original statement, I’ll try and relay his message as briefly and as clearly as he did to me.

To Marc, the artist’s intention holds an incredible amount of weight. He believes that, in order to properly connect with a piece of art, he has to know what the artist was trying to convey.

That’s his stance and, while I disagree with it, I understand it. Honoring an artist’s original intention for their work can provide a clarity about the piece in question. Trying to see what the artist intended and setting aside our own interpretations seems somewhat noble– an act of incredible empathy. The shirking of our own life experiences and, subsequently, the lenses which we view the world through in an attempt to view something clearly is a difficult but important exercise. There is validity in it.

So it takes me back to the clouds I saw this morning. Obviously, clouds aren’t art. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. (You can read more about what constitutes art in a previous post: What Counts As Art?) Still, what would it be like to try and view the morning clouds as someone other than myself? Maybe try and view them as God does? Or will my gorilla fighting a man on a jet-pack suffice. Frankly, I’m not sure. These things are incredibly subjective.

What do you think? Does the artist’s intention matter? Comment your thoughts down below and contribute to the discussion! If you enjoyed the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

A Pandemic’s Impact On Theatre: An Interview With Jason Brubaker

Theatre companies have been thrown into chaos amidst Covid-19. In the face of this pandemic, though, many of them have shown inspiring resilience and ingenuity. One of these companies is The Playthings Theatre. The Playthings Theatre is an intimate theatre company based in Midtown Manhattan. Their mission? To create a safe space for a family of storytellers in the LGBTQ+ community, as well as to produce classic, contemporary, and new LGBTQ+ works for the New York stage.

They’re a young but vibrant company with a passionate devotion to their mission and like so many others in the artistic community, they’re currently coping with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. As theatres across the country have shut down and artists find themselves unable to tell stories, large and small companies alike are grappling with what this pandemic means for the future of the arts community.

Jason Brubaker, Producing Artistic Director, He/Him/His

In order to further understand the situation of Intimate and Off-Broadway companies, I sat down with Jason Brubaker, the Producing Artistic Director at The Playthings Theatre. Jason has proudly worked for the award winning Irish Repertory Theatre for over a decade under the guidance of Charlotte Moore. He has also worked for The York Theatre, Second Stage Theatre, New York City Dance Alliance, On Stage New York as well as many other Broadway and Off Broadway houses. He is a proud member of Actor’s Equity since 2009.

When the video call began, I noticed almost immediately a key hanging around Jason’s neck- a key he wears nearly everyday. To him, it holds incredible significance. “It was actually the main prop from the first Off-Broadway show I ever worked. It was at a theatre called Irish Rep.” The key is more than a fun keepsake, he explained, but it holds intense sentimental value, a representation of one of his early steps into the New York theatre scene and ultimately one of his first steps toward the founding of Playthings.

“Playthings was founded… oh Jesus…. five years ago?” The year was 2015, making Playthings a young but energetic and creative company with a devotion to telling unheard LGBTQ+ stories. He explained, “When the Wings Theatre on Christopher Street closed, I decided that it was important to have a home for storytellers, a home that offers a queer voice. The lay theatergoers coming to New York can’t think that Kinky Boots is the only queer theatre out there.”

Playthings identifies itself as an Intimate Theatre Company, as being defined by having a smaller performance space and a closely knit performance style. The company puts far less emphasis on spectacle and an increasing amount of thought into the overall storytelling experience.

Jason believes this intimate format to be a freeing one. He explained, “There is a drive and want to bring creativity to the community, but we don’t have to worry about the overhead- paying for a venue (other than renting out our own venue). Yes we have a board, but they aren’t focused on gained or driven income. They focus on the impact we want to have on the community.”

The company’s lack of financial ties gives it the freedom to explore theatre as an art-form, pushing the envelope in the name of artistic expression. Jason clarified this freedom through the lens of PlayThing’s creative mission, “Like The Irish Rep or The York Theatre, even though they’ve surpassed the ‘mom and pop’ vibe that they used to have- they still hold true to those sentiments. They’re very focused on their mission. Irish Rep will always be doing Irish works, York Theatre will always be doing musicals. Intimate Theatre means focusing on the goal, the mission. It’s not commercial.”

Jason lights up whenever the mission of Playthings is brought up. The opportunity to help tell LGBTQ+ stories is something deeply important to him. That enthusiasm positively radiates into the community as a whole. Many intimate theatres share this enthusiasm and lust for innovation. Jason believes this directly contributes to the lifeblood of the Off-Broadway theatre scene in the city, making intimate theatre absolutely essential.

However, due to the pandemic, artists across the country have suffered financial and psychological hits. This has resulted in significant damage to the the arts community as a whole, damage that is hard to quantify in the midst of a Covid related shutdown. With talks of a second wave, many companies are discussing plans for the future- plans that involve adapting to a world without live audiences.

As a member of the community, Jason has directly witnessed the effects of the shutdown on artists around him, saying, “There have already been a handful of companies that have had to send out messages announcing that this will be their final season. It’s terrible because anyone in that position is fighting so hard and striving to make that original dream come true.” It has left him reflecting about Playthings and its path forward.

I asked him what these closures might mean for the New York Theatre scene as a whole as well as what kind of cultural toll it would take on the artistic community. He paused for a moment and furrowed his brow. Then he began thinking out loud, “That question really hits me hard because when this first happened I had a meeting with the board and I was outwardly very optimistic, thinking we were going to come out the other side of this- while my internal monologue was shouting, holy shit how are we going to get through this…”

How are we going to get through this? A question that many companies and artists across the country are asking themselves right now. Jason was quick to note that the only way to survive the pandemic was as a community, without the help of the government. Jason likened the government’s neglectful Covid response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He recounted a specific quote on the topic:

“Let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete. Where there is poverty and sickness including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed there is more work to be done. Our work is freedom for all.”

-Nelson Mandela

“It was specifically written about HIV/AIDS,” he said, “the country decided that AIDS was a LBGTQ issue and not an issue for rest of the world. Covid, along with half of the other scares (bird flu, swine flu, the rest of it), they were some of the first times the straight community had the realization that the government wasn’t going to help in regards to a pandemic. We’ve been through this before.”

Still, Jason feels optimistic about the future of theatre. When pitting grim prospects against the resilience of the artistic community, he bets on the latter nearly every time. He elaborated, “I read an article, two, maybe three weeks ago? It said that only 3 percent of theatergoers were willing to return to the theatre post Covid.” He laughed, “But people don’t trust the person in the seat next to them anymore than they trust the stranger in the grocery store right now. Once we have a strong plan and once we can implement it, I think people will be more willing to come back. We are taking the time to ensure the safety of our patrons, actors, crew, and staff.”

His optimism is infectious and I find myself inclined to agree with him. Theatre has survived pandemics before. The human need to hear stories in a live, communal fashion won’t dissipate due to fear. It is a need that must be satiated. Jason was quick to reference Shakespeare during the plague, “Even Shakespeare had to deal with a pandemic. What did he do? He shut his door and he wrote his next play (Lear).” He’s very excited about the upcoming Playthings season, some shows having been specifically selected for a Covid oriented (streamed) format, while others are original picks that are being adapted for new mediums. As much as I would like to share, I have been sworn to secrecy as the season will not be announced until July 24th, 2020.

I asked him if he had a message for other artists out there who are struggling and afraid during a time of such uncertainty. He glanced at the key hanging around his neck and then said, “I would tell them what I tell myself. When you started this process, the process of going into theatre, you didn’t have a dollar to your name. Remember that bravery. Remember that boldness when you set out to do it the first time. Know you can do it again.”

Thank you for stopping by the blog. If you enjoyed the post, please follow the blog. The Playthings Theatre website can be found at http://www.playthingstheatre.org/. Feel free to share the post and be sure to comment your thoughts on the subject below.

What Counts As Art?

I’m going to show you a picture…

At a Modern Art gallery in San Francisco, a teenager left a pair of glasses on the floor as a bit of lighthearted, ironic fun. What happened next is the interesting part. Museum patrons who crossed paths with this new ‘exhibit’ stop to take pictures- mistaking the regular, mundane pair of glasses for an art piece. The whole thing caused an uproar- bringing into question what exactly counts as art.

Last night, I tried to tackle that incredibly vague and broad question. I was with a few good friends and we discussed ad nauseam different artistic mediums, their individual merits, and if it was even possible to place specific qualifiers on art. You know it’s a strong, meaty conversation when everyone finds a way to disagree. And we did just that- disagree. While we didn’t uncover the answer as to what art is, we came to some fun conclusions that I would like to share with you all. Of course, since it is such a subjective topic, you maybe inclined to disagree. If so, awesome! Comment your stance and opinions below- I’d love to hear them.

Anyway, I suppose the best thing to consult when attempting to define a word is, well, the dictionary.

I went to an online dictionary and found not one, not two, but sixteen definitions of the word ‘art’. Initially, I wanted to cherry-pick any one of the sixteen definitions to use for this post but I took issue with all of them. For instance, the first definition listed:

art [ ahrt ] noun

“The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”

At first glance, the definition seemed to cover things- then I reread it.

“according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing”

Art can be beautiful, yes. Art can also be ugly. It can be scary. It can be unaesthetic and unappealing. In fact, there are many art forms dedicated to just that. Many surrealist works across all mediums are designed to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, think Theater of Cruelty. There are also political art forms that are designed to present uncomfortable and ugly truths to an audience. I’m sure there can be beauty in discomfort and aesthetic in the unappealing but who would set that standard to begin with? It’s all very vague and subjective, which is why there are so many definitions of the word art (and why none of them seem all that satisfying).

BUT… for this post I’ll need a working definition, so here is my half-cocked attempt to define art:

I think the meaning in art can be found in how well it reflects fundamental aspects of life, as well as how that effects the viewer. I also believe that, in order for something to be art, it has to have some degree of conscious, human intention behind it. For instance, the Grand Canyon is beautiful, maybe even artistic in nature, but not art. Instead, the Grand Canyon is life, natural. As such, art can reflect the beauty found in the Grand Canyon, but Grand Canyon itself, having no human intention, is not art.

Whew…

As art is so broad and vague, it only makes sense that there are a diverse set of mediums in which artistic intention can be expressed. Which brings up another question- what are the artistic mediums and do some mediums hold greater significance than others?

Some generally accepted artistic mediums: Paintings, Literature, Films, Theater, and Music

Okay- we can probably agree on that. But how about these…

Architecture? Video Games? Cooking? There are bound to be more mediums that I’m missing- but you get the point, many mediums have artistic merits. Films, Literature, Theater, and Video Games all present narratives. They’re forms of storytelling. Paintings and Architecture take advantage of aesthetic to imbue certain feelings in onlookers. Music makes use of the sense of hearing to evoke emotion. Cooking makes use of aesthetic and your sense of taste to evoke feelings as well. How you plate something, the specific qualities it has, the ingredients, they can be transporting. We haven’t even delved into the artistic qualities of fashion.

Beyond that, certain art forms build off of one another. You can’t have Video Games or Films without visual art. Concept designs, etc. Films, Video Games, and Theater also use music to create a fuller, more transporting experience.

This makes me think that art can be any expression or reflection of life and truth around us as manifested through our five senses.

Now, I feel as though the most controversial member of the list above is Video Games- which is why I need to make a quick case for their merit as an art form. We’re past the age of Pong. Video Games are consistently grappling with intense social and philosophical questions and proposals nowadays. They’re telling compelling, truthful stories. They’re emotionally moving. Think BioShock Infinite. Think Undertale. So, glancing back at my makeshift definition from earlier. Video Games: have human intention in their creation (check), are able to reflect fundamental truths about life (check), are emotionally moving in style and narrative (check), effect the viewer (check). Video Games are a valid art form- just a young one.

The question is- are any of these mediums inherently superior to one another? This came up a few times in the discussion I had last night.

My close friend, Marc Anthony, believed that Video Games might be the most effective artistic medium because of their immersive and interactive nature. It provides freedom.

He wasn’t referring to larger, mainstream titles (Call of Duty for example). They tend to be more linear, generally taking fewer risks. They’re less artistic in nature. The same way a Michael Bay film might not be considered as artistic as Hitchcock. This tends to be the case in art, regardless of medium. Oftentimes, the more money is pumped into something, the less freedom it has to be artistic. That money has to be made back, which means consumers have to be satisfied. Suddenly, artistic risks seem far less appealing… boom: Big Broadway. Spectacle Shoot-Em-Up Films. The Call of Duty Franchise.

However, I disagreed with Marc Anthony’s stance that Video Games provide the most freedom and therefor the most immersion. Think about books, for example. The story is set. You, as a reader, don’t have the illusion of control like you would in a Video Game, but you are gifted the ultimate creative freedom: interpretation. Whenever you read something, it’ll be painted in your mind in a way that is unique to you. That mental visual is formed through the lens of your own life experiences. That is an intimate and moving thing- it’s also why movie adaptations can be so disappointing to those who read the books prior… it’s not your vision on that screen. It’s someone else’s.

Additionally, I think there is something to be said for simplicity. Oftentimes, only one artist paints any given painting. Only one author writes their book. The more complex the medium (theater, film, video games), the more visions are battling for a spot in the end product. Subsequently, those visions can clash to the detriment of the end product. Continuity errors, unclear intention, etc. Diversity of creative vision can be of fantastic benefit to a project as well. Two heads are better than one and creative teams can compliment each other in fantastic ways- the project just has to be handled cohesively with a strong captain at the helm. Complex projects aren’t worse, they just harbor more room for error.

We went back and forth on this stuff for hours and eventually came to the conclusion that different mediums resonate with different people- so there likely isn’t a front runner in terms of artistic mediums. But can standards be put on art? Sure. Also, maybe not. However, I’d say that’s a topic for another post.

Thank you for stopping by! Have any thoughts on the topic? Comment them below. If you liked the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.