As I sat down to write my last essay I started thinking about a single word that could sum up what I wanted from this collaborator thing. And then I started thinking about the times when I have felt at my own personal best as a creative maker. I thought about the times when I didn’t know enough to know that something should have seemed impossible. And thought about the times when something seemed so easy, so obvious, and I totally psyched myself out and was unable to complete the task.
What’s the magic sauce of the first that is missing in the second?
It’s something to do with confidence, with brazenness, with daring with to use the very best of your abilities. It takes courage to believe that you can even if you don’t yet exactly know how.
More than anything for myself and for the people I make with, I want an attitude of:
“Yeah!!! I am TOTALLY going to do this. And if I don’t know how, I will TOTALLY figure it out.”
“This challenge is awesome!!! It is exciting to me. And above all it is one I will find a way to be capable of.”
You know that feeling, right? The one where you are on top of the world and able to tackle anything creatively thrown at you? That’s what I want: people who believe in their own badassery.
And if you are like me you also know the opposite, the feeling where supposedly you should be able to do this thing you are tasked with, but for whatever reason you keeping messing up, or feeling blocked, or actually do fine but still feel like you escaped without others knowing you’re a poseur that is just skating by on luck.
What’s up with that? I don’t actually think that about myself. So what makes me feel that way? And more importantly, how can I avoid it?
There are some things that seem obious: We prepare. We study. We learn enough so that we are armed with the info needed to tackle the situation. Without that we might literally lack the tools to achieve our aims. This is the eager student who is handed an instrument he has no experience playing. No amount of “want” will make him know the fingerings on a trumpet.
But it’s not just that.
Because there’s that other end of the spectrum where we’ve been doing something forever and then suddenly, weirdly, we start to realize the mechanics of it. We start to over analyze. We choke. We guess and second guess our choices and things that were once easy are now ending up muddy and unclear. When we know we are smart enough why do we let our own selves get in the way of just doing it?
There was a daring and obliviousness in my early work that I sometimes mourn. That stuff wasn’t as clean, as well thought out, as cogently researched or thoughtfully put together, but somehow, that didn’t seem to matter a lot of the time. It felt like it just had a kind of “heart” in it that was going to come through regardless. And often these days in my theater making I feel myself getting bogged down or distracted by knowing every cultural implication of writing this particular line or so totally aware of the piles of books I ought to read before claiming something in that particular scene.
The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. And it makes it that much harder to feel like that brazen “I know I’m right” confident creator I want to be. I’ve been burned with saying or displaying things I didn’t know enough about in the past. And I’m now smart enough to know that I might not always be right, know that not every choice is the right one. But in creating you have to act like it is. You have to choose and commit or you hesitate and end up doing even more damage than if you’d just gone ahead.
Sometimes I look at others and think, “How do they know they are right? How do they just continue to believe their art is so good?” I wonder where that magic ability, the one that allows them not to question whether they have made the right decision, comes from. And I want to know if I can have some of it.
I suppose there are people that might think the same about me.
Because I try very hard to look like I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I do. But there are plenty of times I have to make a decision or answer a question and I am simply flying by the seat of my pants. Or rather, feel like I am falling by that pants seat. I want to fly. I want to stop looking at the ground fast approaching and stop worrying if I’m going to hit it. I continue to want that confidence in the people I work with. I want it in myself. I want to be in a state of flow in which my high level of challenge is matched with an equally high level of prowess. I want us all to feel like the beasts of creation I believe us to be.
How do we do that? Literally, in a way that I can implement today, how do I start to nurture that? Do I ask more questions of the people that I think do know stuff so that I can steal their wisdom? Do I just assume that everyone is in the same boat and fake it until it feels real? Both? Neither?
I was talking to someone the other day about how I sometimes wish I weren’t a deviser. I said that I wished that there was a single method or cannon that I wanted to subscribe to. Wouldn’t it be awesome to believe that there was one way, one method, to pursue? To know what success looked like and how I could emulate it? To find the art in every finer and more beautifully crafted depth of a detail rather than starting anew with each and every project?
Then I started to think, maybe it’s a kind of an out, this starting over and over from scratch. Is starting from nothing every time a little bit like waiting until the night before a paper is due to begin?
“I would have researched and written a better paper but I only had one night.”
“I would have made a richer play but I’ve no one’s ever done this before.”
I do believe that it is important to question how and why we make the choices we make. I believe we need to make our work useful to contemporary audiences. But a little part, a hidden part, knows that a little bit of the thrill of starting from a blank canvas is that it’s an impossible task. Create something revolutionary that has never been done before. Defy everything that’s come before and do something richer, better and more relevant to today’s audience. And if one gives oneself an impossible task, any success, even a partial one, is a win.
And it’s in the midst of this that I sit right now heading into a summer project – The Tempest – whose measure of success will be just the opposite.
This is no Lady M. This is a straight up, no f-ing around with it, in the park, saying all the lines, Shakespearian drama. For the first time, I have to think about how to make a cut of a script that a lot of people know a lot more than me about. That’s not self deprecating, that’s just true. Think about it. There are people that spend their whole lives on this one play. There are people who study single lines for years. So when I decide to get rid of this or that, I’m claiming dominion over all that expertise.
Can I stress how different this is than in a work in which I am the originator, where the only person I answer to is myself and my co-creators?
I was reading a scene in The Tempest in which Miranda meets Ferdinand and I was looking through to see if there were any cuts I wanted to make. Then I read this line where she talks about her modesty being the jewel in her dower. Initially, I passed over it, leaving it in. Cutting it doesn’t really help shorten the play and the whole keeping her pure thing is a big undercurrent in their relations with each other and Prospero’s oversight of their courtship.
And then I stopped and said, “What the hell? Would I ever in a million years let a female character in a show I created tell a dude that her modesty was the jewel in her dower?”
No. Emphatically no. I think that is bullshit. I know it’s a historical text. But it’s a historical text that will perform in a modern world and speak on behalf of how I think it should be shared with a modern audience.
And then I started to think, “Oh god. But there’s probably a million scholarly reasons that thing is in there. It’s probably so important for reasons I am not noticing. And they’re all going to be upset if it’s gone.”
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, I just can’t. I guess people will have to yell at me. Because if I am doing this play, I have to believe in its message. And leaving that line in is a tacit and casual agreement that the foremost concern in that young woman’s mind should be staying a virgin until marriage. And that’s not a world I want people to see, or a view I personally espouse. I want Miranda to be the weirdo, awesome, strange wild child of this island. The same one to whom it never occurs not to carry logs like a man when the guy she has the hots for gets tired.
Because while I want the benefit of others’ expertise and analysis, I can’t let it stop me from my own opinion. I can’t let it stop me from my own confidence, because that’s the thing that really makes me the artist I am.
One of my favorite words in the world is this…
To pull a MacGyver.
This is the art of slapping together a solution to a problem at the last minute, with no advanced planning, and no resources. It’s the coat hanger you use to fish your car keys out of the toilet, the emergency mustache you hastily construct out of pubic hair.
What’s interesting about desenrascano (literally “to disentangle” yourself out of a bad situation), the Portuguese word for these last-minute solutions, is what is says about their culture.
Where most of us were taught the Boy Scout slogan “be prepared,” and are constantly hassled if we don’t plan every little thing ahead, the Portuguese value just the opposite.
Coming up with frantic, last-minute improvisations that somehow work is considered one of the most valued skills there; they even teach it in universities, and in the armed forces. They believe this ability to slap together haphazard solutions has been key to their survival over the centuries.
Don’t laugh. At one time they managed to build an empire stretching from Brazil to the Philippines this way.
Fuck preparation. They have desenrascano.