If only life were just like this

You can’t direct by yourself.

You can plan and research and come up with concepts to try out, but you still can’t do it alone. One of the things I’ve really liked about this writing project is that every day whether I feel like it or not, I have to produce something. It’s the same reason I recently took up the piano – so that I had a creative thing to do every day even if I wasn’t working on a show.

It’s what I find really tough about being a collaborative generator. You just can’t do it by yourself. There are times when just talking to someone about the thing I’m doing, I start saying stuff that I literally never conceived until it came out of my mouth with that person. It’s frightening to realize your best self is the one that is spontaneously spouting off. It’s not the one that sits and thinks and works out the puzzle slowly. The ideas that come from that process almost invariably suck.  The creative work flies so much faster for me when I am bouncing it off of others. I see something an actor proposes and it sends me in a million directions I never thought the piece might go before that moment. And after it seems like it was always meant to be.

It’s great when I get to be there. But in between the lucky times I’m actually in rehearsals it’s frustrating to sit down and want to “create” in a room all alone and feel totally unable to do anything useful. My work is to shape other humans. And the humans in turn shape me back. I made more progress on an idea to stage a piece out at a historic mansion in a single week of playing around with some people than I did in an entire year of planning. So much of the work is about responding to what is actually there in the room. As someone who spends so much time in my head, it is a release to have to pay attention to what is in front of me.

As the work gets to higher and higher levels of professionalism it takes longer to get to the rehearsal. Frustratingly it also means I have to make so many more decisions before the feet are on the floor. Isn’t that the director’s job? To make all the choices for everyone else? No. I hate that shit. I just don’t work that way. I’ve tried. And when I do it, I usually make crap. I’ve tried slogging through some plan I came up with at home just to prove what I wanted to do was possible, but it always fights the room’s larger ethos. And it never ends up in the show.

10,000 hours. That’s the number that you’re supposed to rack up to gain a master status at something, right? I want to chip away at this number. But how? How do I work on it by myself? This frustrates me. I want to work hard. I want to improve. But there is so much space between the pieces and it feels like I’m wasting time. Like theater and I are in a long distance relationship. The times when we’re together are intense – positive and negative – but it’s always over before I really got to settle in. Each project, each meeting, is so different from the last it’s hard to remember what it was like the last time we were together.

The past few years have found me developing rituals around these periods in order to hold onto the creative impulses as tightly as possible. During Lady M I got into a habit in which I woke up at 7 am, drank a cup of coffee in silence, took a shower during which I pondered the scene that needed work that day. At about 10 minutes in the water an image solidified and I ran, literally ran, in towel and bathrobe to my computer to spend the next two hours typing. Around 9 the main thrust of the idea was had to be down, even if only in random notes or image. If I tried too much newness to much later than that the whole thing would start to fog and muddy. I then ate a quick breakfast, running things over in my head, dressed and went back up to frantically edit for another two or three hours. Another quick hour to print and plan rehearsal and race over to the theater on my bike to try it out. Afterwards, I always came home, drank one glass of whiskey and then lay down on my back (always supine, never on the side) to fall asleep on the floor of my office for between two and three hours. At which point, in darkness, I walked back down to bed.

I repeated this cycle nearly unaltered for two solid months.

Other shows have been similarly rigid in completely different patterns. Clearly, it’s not the particular schedule or boundaries. It’s probably just the fact that there is definition and border to the day. If I know exactly how it must go – wake up, write scene, plan rehearsal, implement plan, come home, repeat – then somehow, it just happens. There is something in this rigidity of “it has to happen whether or not you want it to and it has to be now” that works my creative muscles most effectively. When the choice of what the day will be is infinite, there’s just not enough push back to make anything happen.

I need to be between that rock and a hard place for the ideas to come. In rehearsals that limit is the effort of trying to communicate with another person. In planning work for the same day the time limit deadline that is approaching forces me to buckle down. It’s why in the interim phases the things I am most productive at is grant writing. Those suckers need to get turned in. Hard work with well-defined expectations is easy.  Just the thought of trying to explain a directing choice to an actor forces me to clarify it. Without that hardness, all my ideas are mush.

When I’m going and going and going – doing three projects at once and running from one rehearsal to the next, it feels like a positive reinforcement cycle. The creativity begets more of itself. And that, like most positive reinforcement loops, whips up until I am so exhausted that I burn out and retreat. It feels a little frustratingly all or nothing. I’m worried that when the 30 days of this project comes to a close I will just stop writing. Because if I don’t have to do it every day, then every day will be a day I have to think about making time. If it doesn’t have to be every day, it doesn’t have to be any day. The enemy of creativity isn’t blockage. For me it’s inertia.

Is this a generative art problem alone? Do interpretive artists deal with this as well?

How do you stay kind to yourself but create goals and limits that motivate you? I’d love to hear others’ solutions, or attempts at solutions.


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