A blog about imaginative learning
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.