Friday, September 14, 2012

Nothin' Up My Sleeve ...

Rocky and Bullwinkle. Ward Anderson and Scott, 1958.
Unique ideas and creative solutions for education (or anything else for that matter) can resemble the act of pulling a rabbit - or beast - out of a hat. Is it really that hard to come up with something completely original? Has creativity died?

Every now and again, I get stuck when coming up with an interesting, unique and creative set design for our school's theater productions. While I teach full time, and direct the extracurricular technical theater activities, I still want to create the newest and coolest contribution to the theater world. So I sit and think, and then I doodle, and after that, I open up a new SketchUp document, and play around with shapes and lines .... and then I turn on the TV and see what's on ... and then I get hungry and make dinner.

It's after I do all of that when I start searching the internet for ideas.

I don't search the internet to use someone else's design. (I've done that once, with the designer's permission, and it proved to be way more work on the backside of the process.) I search to see mostly out of curiosity what has been done before. What I find are some really great set designs - and not necessarily by professional designers. (In fact, it's hard to find Broadway designs online.) I also find some designs that lack inspiration, and at the risk of being designer-snarky, some that are just deficient of good design basics. These help in the "what not to do department." The common denominators of the research are the elements demanded by the script: things that are necessary for the progression of the plot or character interaction. After that, the designs diverge into their "good, bad and ugly" designations.

Draughtsman's Compass. Tudedude,2010
What inevitably happens to me - and to other scenic designers that have admitted so - is that I find one element here, and another element there, and combine them with my own idea or interpretation of what the set should look like. Theaters are built in different shapes, sizes and configurations, so rarely will one set design work for another theater. It's practically guranteed that it will be more work forcing the design to work in our theater space than creating a new design - but that doesn't mean that certain elements won't work at all. This is evidenced by a recent conversation I had with my Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer:

I am at my computer, straining to create a brilliant set for our next production. My Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer is looking over my shoulder with a smugly disdainful look on her face.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Hey, that looks familiar!
Me: Be quiet.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: No, really. The staircase is straight out of Guess Who's Comming to Dinner. I can practically see Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn walking down it together!
Me: Leave me alone. I'm trying to concentrate.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Who else are you ripping off?
Me: I'm not ripping off anyone! I'm simply ... paying homage ... to great set designers.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Ah! The ol' "paying homage" dodge. You know what you should be paying? Money. These people design for a living. They can't eat "homage."
Me: I'm only using the stairway - and besides, I had to re-design the damn thing to make it fit onto our stage.
My nemesis.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Uh huh. I see that you are also "paying homage" to the archways in Casablanca, the furniture layout from Act I of Phantom of the Opera, the transom doors in The Odd Couple, and the baracades from Les Miserables.
Me: Those aren't baracades. They're potted plants.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Yeah, whatever. Look, if this is how you define creativity, that's your problem, but people will notice their stuff in your designs sooner than later.
Me: I'm not copying! I'm not! It's just a ... um, sampling. You know, a mash-up? Right? Sure!
At that moment, an older man with thick mop of white hair and black rimmed glasses bursts in.
Spencer Tracy: Hey, jerk! Whaddya think you're doing with my staircase? You give that back right now, or I'll show you what an old-school mash-up is all about!
And then Spencer Tracy beats the living daylights out of me.

Here lies the conundrum: is this the theft of intellectual property, or paying homage to a clever designer?

Jeffery Davis
Creative consultant Jeffery Davis writes about "The Creative Thinking Myth" in his April, 2012 article on The Creativity Post. His contention is that there's more to creativity than original thought. Environment and a person's physical condition has as much to do with creativity as "right brain cognizance." He refers to several different researchers who have done work in this particular area. From my own experience, I would agree that he's on to something. I won't pretend to understand every single aspect of his work, but there are times when I'm not motivated to create or design - and it's usually when I'm tired, or hungry, or if I'm somewhere where I can't work undisturbed. When I do start cranking out ideas, it's when I'm in a good space both physically and mentally. It makes sense. And I'm not just referring to set designs - this applies to creating assignments, units, rubrics and other material for my Language Arts classroom.

Recently a colleague introduced me to this video series. "Everything is Remix" comes from Kirby Ferguson, and is in four parts. It's worth the view for those who are consumed with trying to be completely original. (Spoiler alert: stop trying.)

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

And here is Ferguson presenting at a TedTalks this past June:

So the pressure is off, it seems. Just as long as I keep most of my creative juices going, I can accept that my designs - be it sets on stage or lessons in the classroom - are remixes that meet the needs of those I work with.

What sorts of remixes have you created to fit your learning environment?

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic post, Bill. This is so full of insight. When you discuss the point about the physical fitness and creativity link, I swear a light bulb lit atop my head. Of course! Those long jogs are so cleansing in so many ways, and my mind drifts as the music plays, and I focus on a relaxed breathe. I clearly see how important this is to the energy demanded for creativity. Thank you for such an excellent blog...I'm going for a run :)