John Cleese on Creativity

Both of the following videos are well worth watching.  After you’ve seen them, read my comments below — just a few things I’d like to highlight about what he says.

And then there is the longer 1971 talk:

Cleese notes that being creative requires a certain mood:  a willingness to play like a child, exploring ideas not for any immediate practical purpose, but just for enjoyment.  Kids do things for their own sake, without expectations of results.  When you’re playing, nothing is wrong.

Cleese talks about open and closed modes, which is directly related to the concept of trial and error that I have mentioned.  In the open mode, you are deciding what to try.  You go to closed mode to try it, and back to open mode to evaluate its success.  Creativity is a matter of toggling between the two positions, although acting requires that you keep one avenue “open” even while you are trying something in closed mode, and I’ll talk about this in the future.

Space and time, his first two requirements, are essentially about giving yourself permission to play, to be creative without the need to solve problems.  Cleese suggests it takes a half hour to get yourself into open mode for starters, a time frame I concur with.  This half hour is why I suggest that two hour rehearsals are really too short.  Cleese’s audience is made up of businesspeople, and 90 minutes is probably as long as that group will find profitable, but acting is slightly different.  I believe that 2½ hours is the minimum time to maximize the benefit for an actor.  Three is great, if you can manage it, and a ten minute pause in the middle of a 3 to 4 hour rehearsal will not break the spell.  Nor will a lunch break in the middle of a longer stretch.

However, while the entire rehearsal should be about “play” on some level, small segments of it can and should be set aside as “let’s just experiment with this one thing” time, giving the actors the freedom to explore while knowing that the production is still basically on track.  This is a particularly useful approach in community theater, where actors are often results-oriented.

Cleese’s third requirement (also “time”) is what I have referred to as the “subconscious effect” (he calls it the unconscious, but we’re talking about the same thing.)  Creative ideas sometimes need to marinate for a while before they can really germinate.

Cleese uses the word confidence for the fourth requirement, but I use the word courage.  I want a stronger word than confidence to convey the importance of this.  If you are particularly wedded to the idea that there is a Right, then you need courage, not confidence, to break out of that pattern.

To play is to experiment.  To play well, you need to have the courage to fail.  Courage to make mistakes.  A willingness to be open to anything that may happen.  But mostly, as Cleese points out, courage to sit with the discomfort — the absolute anxiety — of uncertainty until you absolutely have to make a decision.

If you can remember that when you’re playing, nothing is wrong, and that you have the ability to evaluate the success or failure of what you’ve tried after the fact, then it is easier to be courageous.  While it feels better to make decisions, if you trust the process and wait until you really have to make decisions to make them (and the more you do this, the later you’ll be able to wait), you’ll find it is worth the wait.  Which will then make it easier to wait the next time.  Once you have experienced the benefit of waiting, you can start to move from courage to confidence.

It’s interesting that Cleese suggests that humor is that fastest way to get into the open mode.  Perhaps this is why I laugh so readily during rehearsals, and try so hard to get my cast to laugh, too.  Laughter is relaxing.  At the very least, don’t take yourself or what you’re doing (even if it’s Medea) too seriously.  It’s not nuclear war.

And lastly, Cleese says this about the Subconscious Effect:  “This is the extraordinary thing about creativity:  If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.”

It may not come in this rehearsal, or the next.  It may show up in the shower on Friday.  But it will come.  Trust it, and it will come.

To read What is Creativity?, go here.  To read What If I’m Not Creative?, go here.  To read How on Earth Can I Be Creative as an Actor?, go here.

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