What does it mean to own our creative work?
Is there anyone out there who hasn’t had a moment of green rising proprietary “back off what’s mine” sensation when seeing another artist doing something just a bit too similar to something they have already done?
I have. “That was my idea.” I’ve said that a lot. In the last month. More than once. So trust me, I get it.
Our creative work feels like it is of us. It feels like a piece of us. And when someone seems to takes that piece, even if they change it up a lot, even if they interpret it differently, we start to feel a little nervous.
Is it because that new version reflects back on us in ways that we don’t want? Is it because we fear that they might do it as well (better?!) as we did? Are we scared that people will see this new version of our thing and forget that we got there first?
A bit of all of the above, most likely.
Most of my artistic career I have spent copying other people. Often wantonly and shamelessly. Ariane Mnouchkine, Julie Taymor, Joseph Chaikin, Dan Rothenberg, Whit McLaughlin, Jon Stancato my college boyfriend, Robert Johnson my high school director, Tracey Servé (née Deerfield) my best friend at 16. All of these other people’s styles and humor and tricks were things I vacuumed up and spun around inside of me and spat back out into new forms.
Early on I loved Mozart’s Magic Flute and Greek mythology. In retrospect I see this isn’t simply because I had a natural born affinity for the finer classical things in life but because I happen to get to see my voice teacher in the chorus at the Lyric Opera and because my 6th grade teacher had a bangin’ unit on the Greeks in which I happened to seriously dig on Hera. These are influences that planted in my forming brain and stuck there. So when I happened to get around to making some shit myself, it’s not surprising they dislodged and informed the things that started coming out.
At the time I had no sense of how the work came out of me, it just came. And as I started adding layers of influence, the studies in college, my own research, the new people I met and the things they had to say, it felt like my work kept getting richer and richer. All through school this trend continued and it felt like everything I saw could become part of the work: every word, every line of music, every movie, every image. These all had the potential to change how I thought about the things I was making.
And then a few years into working professionally, I made a show that I was really proud of and that show got a review and that review had a sentence or two that mentioned a couple songs I’d used and it was clear that they felt like I had no right to take this music and use it for my own purposes.
It sounds pretty naïve now, but it was the first time it ever occurred to me that I had to be careful with using other people’s material.
This is a tricky thing. There are times when we take the work of another and we do something to it that the original author might feel perverts the original message. That’s a tough thing. It’s tougher when we are farther and farther from the sources we appropriate. There’s a kind of cultural colonialism that can leave a bad taste in the mouth. This is something I think each artist needs to wrestle with. What is the story I am telling and why am I using this source? Only you can decide if you feel like you are doing so responsibly. Only you can decide if you are qualified to own that shit.
In this way, I’m glad to have become aware. I think it’s good to think, so long as it does not paralyze. It’s important to imagine how your interpretation of another’s creative output will affect you and them. Owning your inheritance is part of growing up as an artist.
But in another way, one that I think is quite separate from this first way of seeing ownership, I think we start to see our work as a commodity that we control.
The funny thing about the devising process, for me at least, is that it is a medium of association and collage. And the more I know, the more I start to see that every idea at some level comes from somewhere else. And the more I start to try and limit myself to the things that I can conceive of without “stealing” from another artist or person, the more I start to despair that any new work is possible.
I think that maybe there is no such thing as new ideas.
Lady M is Roy Hart voice on Shakespeare’s text and a lot of choral movement work I see in other directors
SURVIVE! is Radiolab mixed with a video game with Pay Up with Neal deGrasse Tyson.
Joe Hill is Hill’s folk music and Eastern State and historical re-enactment
The Giant Squid is “What if I mixed H.P. Lovecraft with Steve Zizou and site specific staging?”
These works feel the most unique to myself and my company. And they are all nothing more than a mash up of other people’s stuff. Everything I’ve ever made is just a mix of elements from other places that happens to come out in the particular measurements that are unique to me. And really, how else could it be? Is it really possible for anyone to have a totally unfettered and brand new idea? Really?
And if the idea of ownership and copyright were to continue to its logical end wouldn’t every combination of words or notes or movements at some point in the future become property of someone else? Creativity is a process of impulse and intuition. It is a process of meaning making in which we create image, story and metaphor by combining things in new and unique ways. That’s why we see other people’s theater, that’s why we study the masters as students. Because we want to learn and pick up things from those that have gone before us. We are supposed to be inspired by other people’s work. But I guess not too much, or too obviously.
Not enough so that you can see the raw materials we’re drawing from.
But isn’t that just the difference between an awesome piece of art and a mediocre one? Is the awesome piece of art really missing the same set of inputs that come from outside of themselves? Or is it just transforming them in a way that makes us astonished and awed and not really care where it came from, because of its so obvious newness in its combination?
There’s an article out there that I read once about how inventions arrive when the culture as a whole is ready to receive them. I’m too lazy to look up the exact link right now so you’ll have to take my word for it. But this makes sense, no? No one is going to create a light bulb until electricity has been invented. And similarly, a specific series of notes might not be possible until the culture of jazz or blues or funk or whatever has arrived to usher our ears into wanting to hear it.
It starts to feel a little arbitrary saying “This is mine” or “That is his” when really, we might both have never arrived there without the discoveries and forward motion of a million tiny pushes before us. People talk a lot about the kind of omnivorous consumption of influences in Shakespeare’s text. I wonder if such a writer could exist today…
This is why I think that taking ownership is different than owning our work the way we own a car or a book our house. Our work is a living, changing, shifting thing. It has meaning only in so much as we share it with others. And in sharing it, we need to know, need to hope!, that it’s going to matter enough to someone else that it’s going to stick in their brains and reappear and come out when they too start making shit.
I know it twists a little something inside when you see a character that looks just like the one you made. I know it hurts a bit to hear a melody that sounds too much like yours. These words and sounds feel like ours. But they aren’t. Not really. They came to us by virtue of the artists before us. If we’re truthful, if we really take a hard look, nothing we create is truly and totally our own. I don’t believe it can be possible.
And if we can give ourselves up to that, I think what we do is put the value on the expression of the idea, the form and context of the words, and the performance of the sound, rather than the thing itself. In doing that, we put the value not on the art but on the artist, on the producer and not the product.
Anyone can come up with a good idea. The trick is to execute them with brilliance. That’s where the real craft comes in. And ultimately that’s the value I want to create in the world: my worth as a maker, one who takes ownership over the influences I include and the messages I create of them, one who then freely gives that to anyone who’s aching to take it up so that they too might do with it whatever they will.