Which Came First, Creativity or Dishonesty?

With today being Election Day you may be thinking about the need to keep dishonest and problematic people out of office…or at least keeping the more dishonest and problematic people out of office.

Creative and arts oriented people may see their vocation/avocation as a relatively virtuous one compared with that of politicians and other pursuits.

However, four years ago The Conversation wrote about how creativity and dishonesty can have a pretty close association. In some cases, it is almost a chicken and egg relationship as some studies have shown feeling entitled to special treatment can actually boost creativity.

They cite the famous story about the development of Post-It notes as an example of successful dishonesty:

Seeing potential value in the product, Fry reintroduced it to his superiors. They panned the idea, and ordered that he cease working on the project.

Nonetheless, Fry defied those orders and continued with the project. He built a machine to produce the Post-it notes, distributing the prototypes to 3M’s secretaries, who loved them. Fry ignored his managers’ requests, used company property without permission, and bypassed the established protocols of the company – all to pursue his idea.

The author of the article, Lynne Vincent, says that her research has shown that people who aren’t objectively creative, but think they are can develop a sense of entitlement based on the feeling that their ideas are worthy of notice, rule bending, and reward.

As I suggested earlier, what can be somewhat amusing is that dishonesty can actually result in creativity,

The irony is that these negative behaviors may spur more creativity. Francesca Gino and Scott Wiltermuth, a professor at USC, found that being dishonest can actually promote creativity. In this study, participants who cheated on a math and logic task by looking at the answers performed better on a subsequent creativity task than participants who did not cheat. When someone is dishonest, it often requires he or she to break a set of rules; yet this rule-breaking may promote creativity because it allows people to flout convention and expectations

Of course, if you have worked for any length of time in a creative field you know that the willingness to break convention and move counter to expectations is a hallmark of creativity. There can be a fine line, however, between coloring outside the lines and crossing the line where your actions deplete the value of something for others.

They Started Roling Out These Performances Sooner Than I Expected

When I wrote about using roleplaying games as the basis for character and plot development back in June, I never imagined I would see the basic concept manifest so quickly.

Apparently ideas like this occur and are developed somewhat in parallel because for the last two weekends, the theater department here at Mercer University has been using the basic framework of Dungeons and Dragons to create a heroic saga with the participation of audience members.

Martin Noyes of Savannah College of Art and Design had experimented with the idea on a smaller scale in the classroom, but this was the first time he employed the concept as a full production that unfolded across seven nights.

The experience was very intriguing to me because it both required creating a sophisticated framework of rules and allowing the performers (and audience) a lot of freedom to introduce unpredictable elements into the performance.

The technicians supporting the performance had to be prepared to create the appropriate ambience on the fly. In many cases, they had to be just as inventive and resourceful as the actors. It was quite telling that Noyes would often be surprised that they found an appropriate image to project or sound effect to use as part of the action. He wasn’t completely aware of what they had available in their repertoire.

In addition, there was a musician on violin accompanying the performance creating a soundscape on the fly as well.

The performance, called Vengeance and Veritas, was presented in a blackbox space. The set looked something like this:

As you might imagine, flexibility and imagination were employed more frequently than realistic set pieces.

The cast consisted of four main characters, plus four others that took on various roles and helped with some of the mechanics of the performance. Noyes acted as the game master and portrayed many of the allies and antagonists, providing direction or challenges to the main characters. Audience members were pulled up to be ancillary characters and with a few whispered notes from Noyes, were called upon to make decisions to either thwart or assist the central characters in their goals.

By the finale, there were about 12 audience members up on stage alongside the actors either manipulating the rudimentary puppets of one of two dragons or depicting female warrior-monks.

If that wasn’t enough uncertainty added to the proceedings, the 20 sided dice so iconic to Dungeons and Dragons were used to determine the outcomes of many decisions. Oversized dice were distributed throughout the audience. When called upon, they threw the dice into the performing area. Often multiple dice were thrown simultaneously forcing Noyes to indicate which die would rule as it skittered across the floor.

There was a lot I loved about the design of this production.

First, I loved that it developed into something larger than expected. Noyes apparently didn’t think things would develop as far as they did, forcing him to create more narrative guidelines between performance nights. In the heat of the action, he would often forget where on stage he put his notebook down, providing an amusing delay while he retrieved it to consult his notes.

The actors were free to make decisions about their involvement within the confines of the narrative. Noyes had a couple of out of character exclamations of “oh shit” when the actor portraying a vampire turned up deciding to be the hero, thwarting the plans of the villainous character Noyes was portraying.

At the same time the nigh unkillable vampire kept becoming a liability to his allies as the dice roll incited his bloodlust to attack wounded allies.

There were also times where well-reasoned character development and choices by the actor was allowed to trump the dice roll.

While a performance built within the framework of a game like Dungeons and Dragons does require you to have some degree of insider knowledge, unlike many arts experiences, the audience was often more knowledgeable than the creators. Noyes had to admonish the audience to silence as it became clear the actor portraying the vampire was about to make a decision that would benefit a regular person but is deadly to vampires.

This particular approach to creating dramatic narrative answers many of the objections people make about performing arts – it is never the same performance each night, the outcome is unpredictable, the audience is actively engaged and doesn’t have to be cajoled into participating.

Another great thing was that the episodic nature of the performance induced people to return to see the show again. (Anyone who performed got a little gift at the end of the night too) Where they may not have participated on the first night, a lot of people were ready to jump up and take part on subsequent nights.

Because the cast didn’t know how the performance would unfold every night, no one knew when the show would end each night either. Noyes had to judge a good cliffhanger point to stop at.

One conversation we had (my staff provides the ticketing for the performance) is that if this type of show is ever done again, we need to offer special multiple performance pricing to make it easier for people to attend as many nights as they like.

The process also provides artists and technicians with the opportunity to explore new approaches to story creation; become nimble and resourceful in executing complex tasks on the fly and evaluate what does and doesn’t work. There may be a number of practices in common with comedy improv performances, but there are a lot more moving parts involved.

Because of the performance environment, the unintentional pauses, rough edges and problems in the shows I attended only served to provide a greater sense of intimacy and connection for the audience. (How often do you see a director exclaim his pleasure when something is unfolding well or preface a performance by telling an audience how his ultimate goal is to destroy a good portion of what he labored so hard to create?)

In a different physical spaces, the expectations might be for a more polished product. In that case, the performers might have to run through a scenario a couple times before an audience encounters it—but still introduce a mechanism of unpredictability to keep things feeling exciting and fresh.

Since I didn’t expect to see roleplay driven storytelling manifest so quickly and in such a way, I am obviously excited to see what else might emerge.

I’ll Settle For Arts Education Helping People Recognize Their Creative Capacity

I am in the process of moving so I am shifting in to “throwback” mode for a week or so.

I thought I would look back at a post I made about one of Ian David Moss’ contributions of a blog salon.

In his contribution Moss wrote took the view that arts education put children on the track to careers that the socioeconomic environment couldn’t support. (my emphasis)

Much of the literature that advocates arts education as a strategy for cultivating demand for the arts assumes that students who have invested thousands of hours of their lives in perfecting a craft during their formative years will happily set all of that aside as soon as they turn 18 and 21, become productive members of society with skills that they somehow picked up while practicing piano for four hours a day, and donate all of their expendable income to their local arts organizations. Really? Don’t you think that some of them might be a little bitter about having to leave their dream behind? Don’t you think some of them might continue on and spend their parents’ life savings on three graduate degrees in a quixotic quest for fame and glory that never materializes? Is this the best use of our collective human capital?

In my post at the time, I disagreed with the view writing,

Or rather, I don’t think operating on the assumption that not everyone will become an arts practitioner completely nefarious. No one expects every kid who participates in Little League, Pop Warner Football and various soccer leagues will go on to become a professional athlete after all the time they have invested in practicing. Though certainly a situation where a college athlete isn’t expected to devote themselves to their studies is not something to be emulated.

In a comment on my post, Scott Walters wrote,

Your analogy to Little League sports is a good one. Sure, some of the participants dream of being professional football players, but most simply enjoy playing and the experiences they have with friends. For some reason, artists don’t recognize that this is the case for the arts as well. There are other reasons to do it than going pro — reasons that are just as fulfilling (I’d venture to say, in the current arts climate, oftentimes MORE fulfilling)… what an arts education promotes is a rich life that includes the possibility of creative expression as an end in itself, not a means to an end. This was the message of the “Gifts of the Muse” report, for instance: the INTRINSIC value of the arts. Lets not get lost in arts education as existing solely for the creation of professional artists or the creation of paying audience members. There is a more active and vibrant alternative to those roads.

In the intervening years, as I have begun to really think about the intrinsic value of art vs. the instrumental value, I have grown to appreciate Scott’s comments all the more.  Reading this old post, I feel like this might have been a formative moment when I started thinking about arts education and making people aware of their capacity for creativity.

However, there is a lot of validity in Moss’ argument that universities and conservatories are taking the money of a lot of people with mediocre ability and preparing them for a traditional career path in the arts. This problem has been recognized for quite awhile now.

But also note my intentional use of “traditional career path” because there are an ever broadening array of ways in which creative abilities can be applied. Training programs aren’t doing the best job of preparing students to pursue those options.

When “Go Play In The Street!” Is Meant To Encourage

Via CityLab is a NY Times story about how the Boyle Heights community in Los Angeles has recently hosted a “play street.” The program, which apparently started in London, shuts down a street to provide kids with a place to play.

A quick glance on the web shows that both NYC and Seattle have similar programs. I am sure there are more cities participating. They both have some good best practices guidelines.

NYC has put together a listing of organizations that will go to play street events in different parts of the city to provide a whole range of services from dance class, bike lessons, double-dutch workshops, healthy cooking demonstrations, music lessons, etc, etc.  Programs like this are a great opportunity for an arts and culture organizations to make themselves more accessible to the community–including talking with people to learn about how to become more accessible to them.

You may have read in the news that residents of Boyle Heights have been actively opposing galleries which opened in the neighborhood, seeing galleries as harbingers of gentrification which will eventually displace them. A few galleries have decided to close as a result.

The tension between both wanting and fearing improvements to the neighborhood is evident in the NY Times article.

“There’s a difference between making something beautiful to sell it and making it useful,” said Leonardo Vilchis, co-director of Union de Vecinos. “So the question is, can we make this place more livable for people living here now?”

With tensions about gentrification running high, the community’s decision to embrace the play street concept was not a casual one.

[…]

The residents chose Fickett Street with the intention of providing a safe space not just for children but for the community, said Chelina Odbert, KDI’s co-founder and executive director.

“What a play street is not is a replacement for permanent parks,” she said. “But it bridges the gap in a way that’s really needed.”

Even before I read the line about play streets not being a replacement for a park, I was hoping the city didn’t see closing off a street for play an acceptable substitute for a park. There is a lot of conversation about neighborhood which are food deserts, but there are probably a lot of social benefit deserts for things like play out there as well.

In the last couple years a small herd of boys has started ranging across the lawns of the neighborhood acting out various scenarios. I made it clear to their parents that I had no objection to picking up nerf darts when I mowed and having their “dead” bodies strewn across my lawn because it meant that they weren’t inside watching TV or playing video games. (In fact, as I write this, there are kids hiding behind my house.)

Provided there are sufficient traffic controls to make it safe, it would be a good sign if neighborhoods exercised their communal will to create an environment where kids can safely play in the streets without overt barriers.

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