A blog about imaginative learning
When I was a kid my father would take out the “invisible book” as we were going to bed. He added a bit of drama to it as well and pretended to pull it out of his head and open it up. He told us stories of a giant named Stumbles, a clumsy giant who always came to the aid of a kid in need. We enjoyed these times with dad, because there was something magical that took place. Something wonderful about a giant who was powerful enough to save us no matter what.
The imagination is an amazing and magical thing--whether it be storytelling to kids at bedtime, or a genius artist like a Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. We have this uncanny knack as humans to bring something into this world which was not there before. Granted we do not create it out of nothing. We have to use the materials around us, and the ideas, memories, and dreams we have in our minds and hearts. But we are made in the image of a creator, and so we can co-create with him, adding to the magnificence of this world and human life. We can bring forth all sorts of ideas, stories, crafts, etc... But of all the things to which the imagination can give life, I believe Hope is the most powerful.
Like the old legend of Pandora’s Box, there are many hideous and monstrous things that can come out of the imagination, but there's one thing that comes out which has the power to save, and that something is Hope. The ancients believed that Hope had an almost magic power to it-- that it could be mankind’s sword and shield against the monstrous things of this world, even the hideous reality of suffering and death. We humans see plenty of those two monsters in this life, whether it be a disease, loss of a job, malicious and violent attacks, the death of a loved one, or our own death.
The reality of this life is that something is very wrong with the world. Not to say that there aren’t many beautiful things, like life-giving love, charity, beautiful places and inspiring experiences, health and well-being. But even in the midst of those things, we all are going to die. No matter who we are, how wealthy and popular, or powerful we have been in our life, that is the one monster we cannot escape.
And yet...even in the face of the most powerful monster of them all (death) we have a weapon: Hope. Hope once again is the sword and shield we are given. And it is the imagination that helps us see more clearly this great defense. One of the most beautiful examples of imagination and hope in modern cinema is the film Life is Beautiful. A poor Jewish Italian family is taken away by the Nazi’s to a concentration camp. The father, played by Roberto Begnini, is a jovial man, full of good cheer and imagination. He knows that they will most assuredly die. And towards the beginning of the film, his wife and he are separated by the soldiers. So, in prison, it is just him and his son. Soon he realizes that if his son knows what this is all about, he could become as depressed as everyone else around them. So, the father creates an imaginary world. He pretends that this is all just a game, and that the Nazis are playing the villain, and they have to play the strong courageous heroes to win. And he adds the winner wins a tank! Well, his son is very excited for this game, and so he and his father play along, trying to win. This is a film where you will laugh and then cry in the same scene, for the father is denying the temptation to despair by playing the fool for his son--to give him hope, and thus to give him joy.
Imagination is incredibly powerful. It has the power to reframe a situation and our life so that we are acting with purpose. And though as some believe, it may be a risk: to act in a way inspired by hope, it’s a risk worth taking for it is in hope that we are saved. (Romans 8:24)
Why did God allow for suffering? Why did God allow hate? And why did He permit death? These are all questions the human imagination has sought to make sense of since the Fall. Many people in incredibly difficult situations, where sorrow, suffering, and death are all around them, can fall prey to despair, for they do not see the greater epic story they are in, the story that actually does have a happy ending-the Great Story of love conquering evil, and opening up the gates of heaven to all. But even in the midst of the darkest times, those times that seem like all the monsters of Pandora’s box have come out and are wreaking havoc on the world, there will always be something stronger, like a giant who comes to our rescue in the darkest hour, and that is Christ our true and only Hope.
Recently I had the great blessing of directing a theatrical production of It’s a Wonderful Life in our Children’s Theatre Troupe: Riverside Theatre. Every Christmas there are all sorts of reflections on this classic movie. It is a story that is close to the hearts of millions of people, and it continues to inspire new generations. I grew up, like many, watching It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas. To this day, and I’ve seen the film about fifty times, I still tear up when George is praying in Martini’s Bar, and at the end when all his friends come pouring in to the Bailey House. Frank Capra, the director of this film, was an inspired man, and I am deeply grateful for his legacy of great filmmaking, especially this masterpiece.
His son, Frank Capra Jr., in a delightful little documentary about the movie, said that it all began with one idea: what if a good man got to see what the world would be like if he’d never been born. This theme strikes a deep chord in all of us. Why? Because it asks the main question, how have I lived my life and who will remember me? Or, what have I made of this brief time granted me? Have I lived a happy life, or one that was nasty, brutish, and short? Was it a bad night in a bad inn, or a beautiful adventure on a pilgrimage back home?
Frank Capra once said: No man is born to be a failure. This is the kind of thought that makes one step back and consider life from a grand perspective. And this stepping back to consider life and gain perspective is exactly what Capra does in this story about George Bailey, and his life in Bedford Falls. The movie begins with one of the most creative first images in film history: a simple snow laden American town on Christmas eve, a chorus of prayers for a man in desperate need of help; and then a starry sky and...enter angels in conversation about George’s dilemma. The idea of divine intervention in the life of man is of course nothing new, from ancient mythology to the Christmas story itself, but there is something utterly unique about what Capra does here. It is always difficult to capture sincere prayer in film without it looking cheesy, but Capra does it. He begins a Hollywood movie with prayers ascending to heaven, and the commission of an angel, Clarence, to help a human being who in an hour's time will attempt to throw away his life. Here we see a cosmic drama at work--heaven looking down upon the world stage. Clarence the angel responds with enthusiasm to his commission: Oh dear dear...well then I have only an hour to dress. To which the senior angel responds: You’ll spend that hour time getting to acquainted with George Bailey.
Most of the story is spent watching George Bailey’s life, from a young boy when he saves his younger brother from drowning, to his time working in old man Gower’s Drugstore--a simple small town American life. But like all of us, George yearns for something more. Ever since he was a kid he wanted to do something big, to explore, to invent and build things...to see the world! In one of the most iconic scenes in movie history George Bailey says to Mary, his soon to be wife: I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and next year, and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I’m gonna see the world! No matter what critics say about Capra Corn, and schmaltz, just ignore them. This is some of the best writing in film history. Not only is it authentic dialogue, but it is one of the best portrayals of the young aspirant dreamer hoping for a better life. It also happens to be the crux of the whole plot theme--how one can man can lose sight of the wonderful world in which he lives, and how he regains it, without ever leaving his hometown.
Every scene of George’s aspirational dreaming touches the heart of anyone who has ever dreamed of doing something meaningful with their life.
No man is born to be a failure.
We all have a sense that there is something we are called to do, a gift we need to develop, a vision to express, a best life to live. There is a restlessness, greater in some people for sure, to break out of the confines of the system or place that keeps us from going for it. And there is something deeply American about George Bailey’s dream--not to say that this yearning is not in every person. But there has always been the theme in our country’s history of the humble ordinary Joe who breaks out of poor circumstances to become “somebody” in this life. We all yearn for it, and so does George. This is one of the most touching aspects of this story, and one that never ceases to inspire.
Like every great storyteller, Capra paints a picture of ordinary life in the story’s setting: Bedford Fall, an ordinary American small town. We feel at home there, and enjoy all of the scenes developing George's ordinary life: joking with friends in town, lively family dinner at home, a high school dance, a romantic walk home with a beautiful girl. But before reflecting on some of the Bedford Falls ordinary life scenes, I need to say something about directing this play, for it is very much connected to the theme of ordinary life and gaining greater perspective, and part of the reason I am writing this.
As a Theatre Director one gains a unique perspective on a story. Here I had a script that was as familiar as apple pie with the audience. My task was to recreate this world and characters, the tone and feeling of the scenes, and dialogue. My hope was that it would inspire the audience in a way that the movie has done for decades. And so I entered deeply into Bedford Falls, and the heart and mind of George Bailey. One thing I often tell the actors is that in order to make the magic of theatre work, you need to see the invisible. You must actually enter into the place, and minds of these characters through the imagination. An actor’s experience is a bit different from the director’s experience, but both have the marvelous experience of catharsis. This is when you enter into such an intense experience of life, hopes, dreams, sufferings, an all is lost moment, a death like experience, and then the awakening, or joyous turn that gives you new vision, when you see that life is much more wonderful and grand than you ever imagined. It is a reawakening-a rebirth.
I know I am going off on a tangent at this point but really when you are dealing with a story of such depth, and having just experienced it as a director, there are just so many angles to take. What I am trying to say here, in a long-winded way, is that directing this play gave me, and the cast, a more intense experience of this story, different from watching it on screen. When you step outside your life and enter into the drama, it can change you. In a very short period of time, you have the feeling of living a whole life, and then you come out on the other side and normal life is can seem less real and strange. It's as though the life you lived through your imagination was more meaningful in some ways than your daily life. And yet, is this not the greatest function of story and drama?? What a gift story/drama is to we humans! Where would we be without these divine gifts?
Now, back to the story! Consider what happens to George in his ordinary life. He is a man of great talent, personality, and ambition-a magnanimous man. His joyful and enthusiastic embrace of life have affected many of his friends and relatives in his hometown. But he loses the vision of what a wonderful life he has. Why? His life in Bedford Falls is not what he dreamed of as a boy and as a young man. He wanted to get out, to travel, do big things...to shake the dust of the mundane and ordinary off his pilgrim shoes, and see the world! Instead he finds himself married (albeit to a beautiful woman) with lots of kids, poor, in debt, and not doing any of the things he had hoped for as a young man. At various points Capra shows the inner struggle of restlessness that so many experience in their lives. In one scene George is talking with his friend Sam Wainright, who left town and made a fortune in plastics. Sam says: still have your nose to the old grindstone? After Sam leaves George, standing next to his wife Mary, staring off down the road. He kicks his clunky old car door shut, and you can see the grimace of discontent on his face. Once again Capra’s brilliance in planting in the script the simmering restless of a character who is refusing to accept his lot in life. Is my fate a blessing or a curse?
One of the main themes throughout the whole thread of this narrative is that George, though he never got to leave town, has touched the lives of so many without knowing it. One of the most poignant scenes is the moment of decision when George’s father dies, and Potter, the town’s malevolent miser is trying to liquidate the Building and Loan, the Bailey Family business. Once again, one of the most famous scenes in movie history: George defending his father’s memory in the face of Potter’s cruel comments: Peter Bailey was not a businessman. That’s what killed him.
George lets him have it with a legendary speech: This rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working, paying, living and dying in this community. Well is it too much to ask to let them work and pay and die in a couple of descent rooms and bath? Anyway my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!
Here we see George’s noble heart in a way that will define the rest of his life, and why he will live such a wonderful life. As a young man he desires to do something great, to leave town. But in this speech to Potter, we see a huge vision in George--a vision of what it means to live a truly human life, even in a small town- a vision of how a man can make a town more humane- not just another cog in the wheel in the machinery of business and politics. George, like his father, has in his heart a deep awareness that one man’s life can make everyone else either happy or miserable. One man can change the hearts of so many. George has the opportunity to leave town after this speech, but as he is walking out to go to college, a board member runs out exclaiming that the board chose to keep the business going as long as George becomes director. Here George faces the real challenge of his life. Will I sacrifice what I see as my dream to take on a noble responsibility? He does not see it at first as a noble task--he thinks of the Building and Loan as a shabby little office, where one is only concerned about nickels and dimes, and how much to save on a length of pipe. But George, because he has a great heart, says yes. And from then on his life is meant for Bedford Falls--his great cross, and what will become his great glory.
While directing this play, and witnessing our actors enter into the emotional space of George, and his life, I experienced the brilliance of Capra’s writing. He had such a knack for capturing real human moments that reveal something deep and grand--a depth that lies hidden behind the curtain of the ordinary and small. I remember directing the scene when George is eating dinner with his dad, while his brother Harry is getting ready to go to the high school graduation dance. His dad is tired, and tells him as he’s fiddling with his soup, that he had “another tussle with Potter” that day. His pop begins probing what is on George’s mind for his future. After George tells him about college, traveling, building things, his dad asks him if he would consider coming back to the Building and Loan. The acting in this scene is sincere and amazing. We see the interior struggle of George expressed in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes, his tone of voice, and most importantly we see the heart of this character, his interior world come across with such power, that in a moment we know who George Bailey is. He is a young dreamer with a great heart who will be called upon to take up the cross--and direct his joyful heart and vision of life to transform his hometown. His adventure will be closer to home, and will seem mundane and ordinary, and yet all of heaven is watching.
This is the kind of reflection we all need in our life. In my ordinary day to day, do I see that there is a great cosmic drama at work, and that somehow the small things of ordinary life are packed full of meaning--that they are the stage on which we are called to play the role of the great hearted hero? Sometimes our small actions and dreams can feel like tiny pebbles tossed into the waves of a great ocean...insignificant dreams of a man or woman who will walk this earth for a short time, and then be forgotten. This is the nightmare we all have: that we will die, and see that we did not live life as we were called to live it, or that it all was meaningless, sound and fury signifying nothing, a random tumble with no story.
There is a nightmare sequence in this play which bears this eschatological weight. I remember when directing part of the play how important the music and lighting was, but also how the actors had to make the world of Bedford Falls transform into the nightmare of Pottersville through their faces, tone of voice, and expressing feelings of listlessness, anger, and disdain. C.S. Lewis once said that we all have the power to bring heaven or hell to any situation by the way we act. Here we see this reality when George wishes he had never been born. Clarence, his guardian angel, rescues him after George, on Christmas Eve, is about to commit suicide. Uncle Billy lost 5,000 dollars, and the Building and Loan was on the verge of collapse, as was George’s life. And so Clarence visits him to show him what a wonderful life he actually has, and that he ought not throw it away over 5,000 dollars. After George’s death wish, Clarence leads him around the upside down of Bedford Falls (Pottersville), and there George sees how his joy, his heart, his friendship, and sacrifice had made his hometown a truly human and good place to live. He sees what the world would be like without him.
Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?
George sees the void of the world without him. He sees how his father’s dedication and his generous sacrifice saved the town from Potter’s inhumane heart, and how his family, his friends, all create a truly good place to work, and pay, and live, and die--a hometown where there is joy, fulfilling work, the warmth of hearth and home, family, and friends.
For as Clarence note reads at the end: No man is a failure who has friends.
After our play was done, after the lights went out, and the props, costumes, and set pieces were put in the truck, I prayed and thought about my experience directing my favorite story and film. The intensity of a life lived on stage through the imagination is something that actually affects your heart, and life. Story has the power to open up the cosmic drama of our own life, by pulling back the curtain, and revealing that no matter how small and insignificant one’s life can feel at times, all of heaven is watching. God cares for each of his children more than anything else, and that our Guardian Angel follows us everywhere we go, hoping that we will realize that No man is born to be a failure, and No man is a failure who has friends.
And so, Merry Christmas Bedford Falls! Attaboy Clarence, attaboy!
Thank you Frank Capra. Thank you. And God bless the cast and families of Riverside's production of It's a Wonderful Life!
a poem by Pete Searby
I wonder what the wind will bring,
As I sit before the fire
Will it find me idling,
Or will it warm an old desire
I wonder if the wind I’ll meet.
It comes from mountains far away
I feel its breath caress my feet
I hear the wolves from yesterday
I wonder where the wind has gone
Silence follows in it’s wake
Until the echo of a song
Reminds me of the path I take
All children deep down yearn for an adventure. They yearn to see beneath the thin veneer of this world, and glimpse a grander narrative--a story in which they play a greater role. They dream of a story wherein they take part in an epic tale where good and evil battle one another--where there is great victory, yet the fear of great defeat--where small efforts move the great forces of this world toward a good end. So often, we adults forget about the stage upon which all of us are playing a role--a role in a story that came before us, was the foundation of this world, and to which all journeys and stories are leading.
We all yearn to see this world--this stage of action where our lives have eternal resonance. We adults, in the midst of the mundane affairs of daily life, forget about the dreams of our youth, when we yearned for deeper meaning, of journeys taken, where our mettle was tested. In the history of this land called earth, there have been great stories, and great characters. In our imaginations there are worlds to discover, there are characters grander than life, but stories seem to fade as we grow old. And for some children, the stories have never been, for they have been hidden from them, or they have not been given the chance to enter into the world of the imagination, and not just an imagination freely floating without roots, but a place where the "echoes roll from soul to soul", a land full of color and significance. Alfred Lord Tennyson once painted a vivid picture of this story of ours crying out "the splendor falls on castle walls, on snowy summits old in story." This splendor, or echo of adventure and meaning resonates in the hearts of every human person, and yet there are forces in this world that want to stifle the imagination, where wonder is snuffed out, sputtering in a world of shiftless insignificance.
What are we doing to create landscapes of action and meaning for our young, where they can taste the grandeur of what is noble, of what is good, true, and beautiful? Is it found in the stifling classrooms of standardizes factory school systems? Is it found in the digital caves in basements of modern homes bereft of wind blowing through the forests of this land? Is it found in the worksheets, tests, colleges that our educrats deem as the way to judge and form intelligence and analytical thought? No! Where are the storytellers who once told us who we are, and what story we are part of? Where are the stages not strutted upon by the patchwork post-modern playwrights who know no end, who know not the story of stories? What has happened to the voices of the past who spoke to us of what it means to be human? Have we lost the ears that hear and the eyes that see?
It is time for places where wonder is reawakened and the hearts of brave lads alive to the world see what it means to be men! It is time to show them the true meaning of adventure: a call that beckons them to walk out of the soft suburban lifestyles of mediocrity which stifle their daring and seek noble lives of generosity and courage. They must take daring journeys of awakening, but not out of mere bravado.
They must be rooted and guided in stories that show them the true meaning of this pilgrimage we call life. C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien heard this call, and wrote stories to awaken a generation. They spoke of Aslan on the move, and the small hands of middle earth that move the world. They realized that walking out of one's door is an adventure, and that each day the journey begins anew, when we see through the thin veil which hides the great battle of heaven and hell from our eyes, the veil which tries to cast the darkness of the mundane and ordinary over our lives, so that we forget who we are--not only sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, but children of God, who are all on the great pilgrimage, bound for Glory, where the flights of our imagination can only catch inklings as we strut and fret upon this land.
On this journey, where imagination and story inspire and give sight, there is a light which preempts heaven, and helps us see the glory of the hereafter in the here and now---where knights, pirates, elves, demons, angels, animals, and men all take part in the great epic narrative of this story called Life.
Today, Riverside affirms the power of story, the imagination, and grace to awaken the hearts of many young boys, and girls. When the world grows dark, we need the stories of light again. And how we are restless until the world is ablaze with the true story of Light and Life. God bless all those storytellers and poets who cry out from the depths, reminding us all of the need to remember who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. May it be so! May we help make present for many young people, and for that matter, people of all ages, the meaning of true stories, of true myth.
Recently, I spoke to a young aspiring actor about how they prepared for their role in a classic comedy. I asked him: did you watch the movie? He said, “No, I didn’t want the actor’s interpretation to affect my own idea of the role. And the director told us not to watch it.”
I’ve had the chance to direct many plays, and have so enjoyed the opportunity to help young actors expand their imaginations and enter into stories and characters in deep ways. When I heard this fellow say this I must say I was shocked. I know this is a common approach by many directors with young actors, but I think it is not only a huge disservice, but also a faulty understanding of the actor’s craft and the director’s role in nurturing young actors.
Imitation is the greatest flattery they say. And then there’s the old adage that good artists borrow, great artists steal. But I think there is something deep here to consider. There is something at the heart of imitation and an actor’s preparation that reveal a deep reality of the creative process and the director’s role in theater.
I once worked with a theatre director who had very strong ideas about acting preparation. And yet if you happened to ask him about the latest production he saw, there was nothing there. He no longer was watching theatrical productions-outside of the ones he directed. I found this incredibly strange. How could you direct plays and not watch them?
This reminds me of something I see in the realm of songwriting. It is often the case that the young, once exposed to playing music, start to write their own songs (which is great), but they do not know many covers. This is a bad idea-just to speak bluntly. One of The greatest songwriting teams of the modern age is the Beatles. More hit songs than any other band. And yet, they began playing tons of gigs in Hamburg and England, and they mastered playing many many covers before they mastered creative songwriting.
There is an old discussion amongst actors about memory and imagination. Do you plumb the depths of your life experience and emotional memory when taking on a role, or do you use your imagination to enter into the life of a character even though you do not have the exact memories that relate to this character? Most agree it is a mix of the two, because you can never escape your memory, in fact there is an intimate relationship between memory and imagination that is inseparable. But it is the case that both approaches are necessary for all actors.
The main point I want to make in this piece is that all actors, directors, songwriters, writers, need to continually be listening, watching, and experiencing the masters of their craft. Wynton Marsalis, the great jazz musician and cultural historiographer, often speaks on the theme of respect for a tradition and trailblazing creativity. One important point he makes is that great jazz musicians know so many songs, licks, melodies, chord progressions, that at any moment they can pull from their memory and with imagination find ways to reinvent song, in an instant. There is not only a careful study of the craft but an in the moment spontaneity-a convergence of music memory and an inspired new creation, where the songwriter’s soul-a unique voice-meets tradition.
Now, to get back to acting. And I do admit there is room for disagreement here of course, and that I’m taking a certain stance on this. When a young actor is given a role in a classic play, why would a director tell him or her not to watch other actors’ interpretation of this character? The normal reply to this question is: because I don’t want him to just imitate that actor, but rather come up with a unique approach to the role.
Now, I think this is half right, but half wrong as well. I believe it is a massive disservice to dissuade a young actor from watching master craftsman interpret a classic role they are taking on. Why? It is similar to why it is vital for a musician to play tons of songs as they are writing their own. The inner world of an actor’s imagination is a complicated and mysterious realm, just as the imagination and memory of any person is utterly unique. The actor from the richness of his imagination and memory can become another character, and play that character in a way only that actor could do it. This is because artists each have a unique voice that can bring classic characters to life in a great variety of ways. However, in order to approach any role, an actor must do a lot of research and prep. It is not merely a going within and then expressing the role without any reference to the cultural legacy of the role.
Michael Caine once said that he was “the biggest movie fan and actor fan.” He was getting at the idea that he watches tons of actors, not only because he loves to watch them, and loves the artistic medium, but he knows that in order to figure out this acting thing-and the roles he must play, he needs to watch how other actors have done it. There is a great humility in opening oneself up to the wide world of a particular craft, knowing that the expertise and talent can be awe inspiring, and frightening. But it is necessary.
Imitation is vital for young actors. It begins when you are a child. We watch others-their expressions of emotion, we hear their annunciations, emphasis, inflection, we see their reactions, their physical gestures, the way they look when they are mad, excited, afraid, in love. And we reenact life. We re-present these scenes of life, these utterly unique characters, yet people with commonalities and cliche behaviors for sure.
But what if we never met a Captain Hook type, or a Joker, or an Ahab, or an Ace Ventura, a Mortimer Brewster...etc? Where do we turn to become those characters? It is the case that certain actors are not meant to play certain roles of course-and directors and producers are involved of course with discerning that. But my point here is that it can be the case that an actor must turn to their imagination for most roles-and memory will play a part at times, and not a part at other times-or it’s just a mix of the two. And then there’s the whole world of reacting to the other actors, to engaging in creative conversation with the director about the role and the story. Every actor worth his or her salt knows that reacting and listening are almost as important skills as the deep prep and imagination part.
But to get back to the main gist of this piece. Why on earth would a director tell a young actor not to watch the master actors who have played the character they now have to become? I think it is the false conception that the creative act must stand on its own, apart from influence. There is a
Fear that the actor’s performance won’t be totally unique, and yet imitating at a young age is key to mastering any craft. This is not to say that a young actor should merely imitate. I think they should definitely find their own version, their own unique expression of a character. But please, watch those who have gone before you. Learn, imitate, then add your own voice. Anyone involved in the creative arts, especially theater should be a huge fan of theatre, of actors, etc…
Last example: I often ask young musicians who they listen to for fun. For instance, I once asked a young clarinetist who liked jazz if he had listened to Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, or Sidney Bechet. He said no. I’m not sure who his teacher was, but man, that would be the first thing to do!! Tell the lad to listen to the greats! And so I say to young actors; watch, listen, imitate, learn, then and you will find your voice along the baffling journey of a creative artist and actor.
I hesitate to use the word “teach” the creative process, because a picture appears in my head of a teacher standing in front of a class explaining the process of creativity. This is the opposite of what I would like to talk about in this short write up on this ever elusive process-even the word process is not quite the word. In fact the only words in my title which work are “the” and “creative,” and I guess that is appropriate since that is the end goal isn’t it? To help these young kids be the creatives--to help them experience the moment of creativity--a moment which can shape the way they work, the way they think, interact with others, and their vision of life. So, it’s an important topic, and I want to get the title right. So forget the title, and let’s move on.
Creativity is a wonderful word. Cynics might exclaim that it’s overused and I agree. But I think it is important for anyone working in the realm of creativity to contemplate what this peculiar human gift is.
I use the word wonderful because the creative process begins with wonder. It begins with a sort of seeing, hearing, or feeling that comes to us from without. And yes I mean from without. There are some out there that would like to relegate the muse to the closed off room of our subconscious, but I think it’s more like a portal of our inner world with something other, something from without, and yet is intimate with our within. Right! We sense something outside--something that resonates in our inner world, like an echo in the valley of our imagination that is a distant call rousing us to an awakening….
It often begins with an idea, an image, a sense, a sound, a word. It is hard to describe and quantify the creative process. It is mystical. And that is why it is so often forgotten in education. Education is run by adults seeking to make educational businesses work, and businesses need quantifiable results, which means nice and neat content, lists, numbers, and tests. However, what continually baffles the minds of researchers in education is how creative genius so often occurs outside the classroom.
It is on the borderlands of the system, or in the in between that so many creatives find their muse. So, the question is how does a teacher foster a creative atmosphere that is actually good for creative work? Everyone agrees that creativity and innovation are vital, and yet so often the places where kids are supposed to learn are not amenable to the creative process. Here are some ideas…but, this will be an ongoing topic, just as creativity is inexhaustible, so I will just mention a few ideas, and revisit this over and over again.
In theatre, the director calls upon the actors to imagine a situation. I remember asking a group of kids to pretend like they were looking over a cliff and suddenly a dragon rises before them. The exercise is supposed to help them express an emotion physically by imagining they actually see the dragon. There was one girl whose eyes were so locked on the imaginary creature that you were drawn to her eyes, and you believed that she was actually looking at something. One important aspect of fostering the creative process is helping the young to strengthen their imaginations. You can’t act if you can’t see the scene before you. It all begins with seeing the invisible. So many great ideas took shape in the imaginations of human beings, and many great things happened because those humans followed through on their imaginative ideas and made them come into being--they made them real. This is an almost God-like power that we have, and that is why the creative process is a bit on the mysterious side, and yet utterly important in the education of the young.
Fostering the creative process means inspiring your students to see before them something so awe inspiring, that they enter into that realm for a time. So one very important step is the set up: how are you preparing your group to enter into this realm of wonder. What are you showing them? What story are you telling? Is there an image, a scene from a movie, a sound? I once heard a magician say that he much prefers his audience to say “wow!” than ask “how?” He was getting at the idea of wonder. First you must wow your students, opening up for them a vision of something interesting, so that they will naturally want to learn about it.
The energy of an inspired group of kids ready to learn is palpable--you can feel it. But you can also feel the apathy of a group when there is no magic present. The teacher can be present because it’s his/her job, or they may just be trying to get through content they are supposed to cover. But if there is no plan to wow them, inspire, to get their imaginations going, then there will be no creative atmosphere. Maybe we should just not use the word “teacher” since it conjures up associations of boredom and listlessness. I think Guide or Tutor are better. Or maybe even Animateur!
Fostering creativity in a group is difficult but the taste of creative work will refine their sensibilities so that they will yearn for meaningful creative work for the rest of their lives. They will have a memory of a time when they were inspired, and there was something deeper they were trying to accomplish. This will stay with them and form them as human beings.
Besides inspiring their imaginations with the wow, a creative atmosphere must be a place where the students understand and are inspired by a worthwhile end goal. The end goal needs to be something that they can perform or hold up and say look what we have done, or I have done.
The other element of teaching creativity is to foster a spirit of sincere and charitable openness-a place where the students feel like they can express themselves, their thoughts, humor, ideas, emotions. Though many think the creative is the loner who finds his inspiration in the midst of a suffering lonely life, it is more often the case that creatives thrive in a culture where art and creative thinking is part of life. But fellowship in creativity ought to be its own article.
These are just some ideas to consider. Creativity is that gift we have to bring new insights and ideas into this world. Imagination is the place inside where who we are mixes with the stuff of this life, and something new is born. The two are the most powerful gifts we have and are vital to education-and yet so often they are not at the center of teaching. What if we could focus in on the best ways to inspire imagination and creativity? What would education look like? That’s really what this blog is about.
When I was a kid we loved to role play on the interconnecting yards of our Northern Virginia neighborhood. It wasn’t enough to go out and just run around. We would usually come up with some overarching narrative, then don our adventure gear, our weapons, and off we ran. We entered into worlds of international espionage, Indiana Jones escapades, Jedi battles, or even monster hunting.
As kids we had the power to transform our ordinary circumstances into an epic struggle between warring nations, or a landscape of monsters, or superheroes defending the world from an evil villain and his minions. Some people think we grow out of this phase, but do we really?
This ability to transform our surroundings into some place more interesting, more packed full of drama and intensity, is a power that is much greater and more important than some may think. The imagination is almost magical in its ability to bring story to life in this world; to see more there than there is at first glance.
Imagine this: a little boy making a fort out of blocks, and racing his hot wheels around. For a time, those jumble of blocks become a secret awesome car hideaway-even though it’s just a jumble of blocks. What is that boy doing there? Is it worthwhile considering that strange power he extends over matter and time.
Thomas Howard, in his lecture, What about the Imagination, uses the above example as an image to understand this mysterious faculty we humans possess. He says that we all seek to articulate something out of the jumble of our lives, just like this boy desires to articulate something out of the jumble of blocks. As kids we sought to articulate something out of the landscape of our yards. We wanted to establish a world where our lives were on the line, where some epic struggle was underway, and we were all playing vital roles in these conflicts.
Everyone has a jumble of something in their life. It could be made of blocks, or land; it could be your home, or work. Sometimes it feels like life is just a jumble of experiences with no interconnecting narrative. For some people, the stories we tell ourselves are just constructs we form to make sense of things. But this is a very limited view of the imagination.
There are some who hear these ideas-making up stories and creating imaginative landscapes-as escapism. And yet this exercise of the imagination is something we do more than you might think. And not only do we do it, but it is actually vital that we do it. It is essential to who we are. It is vital that we reenact stories that broaden the landscape of our imagination.
The great dilemma in our culture, and in education, is that imagination is not at the center of learning as it ought to be. Imaginative storytelling is often seen as almost “extra-curricular.” And yet, the most vital activity that every man and woman must do is role play, to see the story of their life, to perceive the great narrative that gives their life meaning, and then and only then can the threads of one’s life make sense on a larger scale. The threads of a great tapestry look like a great jumble from behind, but from the front there is a unified scene to behold.
The role playing of children is a creative work of the imagination. And we never grow out of this game. it is through the imagination that we are able to not only perceive and make sense of the jumble of blocks, of the landscape outside our doors, the threads of our life, but we can actually make that life we see in our imagination come to be by a sort of incarnation--a making flesh of the imaginative visions we see.
Many are lost, and unfulfilled because the education system has relegated the imagination to the nursery room floor, a place G.K Chesterton once claimed was the place where he received true wisdom. We as humans are linked inextricably to story and imagination, and only through an imagination alive to this world can we perceive the role we are meant to play in life. So, get out there kids and role play, for it will be the only way you will learn the role you are meant to play on the landscape of your life.
Escaping from the mundane to a moment of meaning--to something almost magical...
All of us seek to find this sort of magic in some way--something mysterious and meaningful about life--moments that say “there is something more to all of this.” There are many ways to experience a moment of inspiration-a moment that gives us a new insight-wakes us up to see anew the world, our work, relationships, and this journey called life.
There are moments in life when one seems to step out of time and experience a deeper reality at work in this world. Stop! This idea is powerful, and we must consider it for a moment. I believe it lies at the heart of education, or what I like to call Imaginative Learning. Moments of insight, of seeing the world inside out, are moments that become part of us in a way much deeper than most rote learning in school classrooms.
Recently I helped run a Bilbo Baggins Birthday Party Festival. Each year we put on a Bilbo Fest, to give it a shorter name, at the Riverside center for imaginative learning. Some may snicker at this and think it’s a bunch of larpers (live action role players) trying to live out an epic fiction, but there is something else going on. The idea of re-living a story together is one of the deepest longings of man--it’s why we have memorials for our country, or the dead, or why we gather to remember a great mystery of life like birth, marriage, Christmas, Easter. It's why we have drama! There is something innate in human beings to memorialize stories in a way that in a sense brings them back to life, so that we can re-experience the richness of that story.
These moments are more powerful than one might think at first.
There are all sorts of festivals out there these days, from craft beer fests, to October fests, Autumn fests, and the list goes on. Like any word, due to the associations we have, there can be a lessening of its meaning. Just like someone might react to the word storytelling in a way that lessens the transcendent import of that word.
No matter what one may think of festivals, it is a reality that cultures all over the world have them, and have them in order to enter into a memory or story that in their ordinary workday life they cannot. These festivals can express a deeper reality in a way that borders on the experience of another world. Why do we celebrate and have festivals? Why take the time to set up elaborate celebrations, memorials, parties?
Josef Pieper who inspired me greatly with his book “In tune with the world: a theory of festivity” delves deeply into the reality of festivals, and what they say about man and his longing to memorialize and relive a story, or mystery.
So often in education, we place so much emphasis on classroom learning, memorization, content, preparation for tests, and the rigamarole of what the system has told us is vital for education, that we forget the moments of inspiration, that can be some of the most powerful educational experiences.
During the Bilbo Baggins fest there is true merry making--feasting, singing, dancing, dramatic portrayals of the story under lights stringing from great trees, vignettes in the old forest, fireworks, and a fellowship of people who find the story one that gives hope.
Some say that when they were at the festival there was a feeling of almost entering into this world--of reliving it.
Festival, and moments of transcendent meaning, are part of imaginative learning. We all want to experience a meaningful story, and though many teachers try to convey story in the classroom, through Q and A, and essays, there is nothing akin to the festival memorializing of a story--when for a brief moment our imagination glimpses an epic narrative that speaks of hope, fellowship, and a joyous end that dispels the darkness around us. These memories of festivals can become core memories, rooted deep in the heart of the young, so that as they grow they will remember that a world looks like packed full of meaning, adventure, romance, beauty, fellowship, and the idea that there is more to life than meets the eye.
Great festivals are meant to open up a portal in a sense to a greater meaning of life, and for a moment take us by the scruff of the neck, make us look out, and say “look at that vista!” We are not meant to just get by, but live fully, and bring to life in the most magnificent ways we can, the memories, stories, and mysteries that remind us what this journey is all about.