Innovating Through Artistry

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The Arc of the Story: At the Threshold

In Author: Amy Frazier, Creativity and Innovation, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS, Theater/Film, Writing on October 6, 2009 at 9:55 am

What’s up with the resistance?

You know the one. The resistance that comes shortly after you decide to launch a new creative endeavor. The resistance that whispers in your ear that maybe the idea isn’t that great, or you really don’t have the time, or you’re really not so good after all.

Maybe it doesn’t affect you. If not, I’m willing to bet you’re in the minority. For a lot of artists, the initiatory phase of a project can be a very painful back-and-forth play of initiative and doubt.

When I’m acting, for example, it usually shows up at the first blocking rehearsal. When asked to actually get the character “up on its feet,” I often balk. In the course of the entire rehearsal period and even through opening night, I will never feel as awkward and disembodied as I will on the first blocking rehearsal. I’d rather be anywhere else then right there.

Then there’s writing. Every writer knows that big blank page. Now, a computer screen. I wonder if the relative effortlessness of tapping and deleting with no crumpled paper overflowing the wastebasket as evidence doesn’t somehow cover for the fact that we’re stuck. No. We still know. We might not have the physical evidence of every crappy opening line–it may have vanished into electronic ether–but we get it: our writing sucks.

I suspect painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians have their own issues.

Right now, I’m working on a program I’ll be delivering at the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation in Brussels at the end of the month, called “Riding the Arc of the Story.” I’ve had my own deal getting it pulled together, but what I wanted to share in this post was something I’ve learned while working on the program, about narrative structure and the Hero’s Journey.

Evidently, as soon as the hero begins her journey, she is met at the threshold by beings whose purpose it is to provide initial resistance in the form of a test: is the hero up for the challenge? They’re called “threshold guardians,” and they can show up as friends, family, foes…or even part of our own psyche, our shadow. (I know this one!)

The concept of the Threshold Guardian has given me a new way of looking at my internal resistance to the early phases of a project. Now, instead of either giving in to the temptation to pull away, or feeling like I have to muscle through and pretend the resistance isn’t there, I remind myself that I might be on the threshold, and this might be only a test. Of the emergency threshold guardian system. And it’s ok.

The next time you find yourself hitting that resistance wall, ask yourself: is this a wall? or might it actually be an opening. Might you actually be on the threshold of something entirely new?

Riding the Arc of the Story: Inciting Obstacles

In Author: Amy Frazier, Creativity and Innovation, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS, Writing on September 1, 2009 at 6:54 am

All of a sudden, you have it: a beautiful idea! It comes to you full blown and shimmery. Perhaps something brand new you’ve never before conceived, or perhaps the result of pondering long and hard. Regardless, there it is: exciting, and full of energy. Your idea can do no wrong. The world is its oyster. It is your helium balloon.

Ideation. What a great place to be.

You, and perhaps a happy gang of fellow-ideators, begin to bring this effervescent, brilliant idea into being. Plans are drawn, schemes concocted, url’s purchased and celebrations forseen. It’s all a giddy whirl.

Until the obstacles start to arrive. Perhaps not with the first obstacle, or the second, or the third. But eventually it happens: something comes up and you don’t know if you can get around it. As sure as ideas are born, obstacles come in their wake. It is like a natural law.

In the move from ideation to implementation or execution, the emergence of obstacles can tell us many things. It can be a reality check, or a good moment for redirection. A serious obstacle has the power to derail the entire scheme.  Most people, I think, realize that when ideas hit the real world, they are reshaped, and sometimes with difficulty.

But how do we respond when it happens? Think especially of group endeavors. How do different personalities react to the emergence of a serious obstacle to implementation? Can you think of a time when someone has thrown up their hands and said: “At last! Now the real story has begun!”

That’s what the narrative arts have to show us. If we look at the implementation phase through the lens of narrative structure, we can see how stories don’t really get started until the first big whammy. There’s even a term for it: the inciting event. Anything before the inciting event (also sometimes known as the first plot point), is merely background, setting the stage. The action does not really begin to elucidate meaning within the framework of the story, until something unexpected shows up.

The arrival of obstacles which appear to thwart our plans does not necessarily mean that the idea wasn’t solid or real enough for the real world. In fact, it might be just the opposite. The natural pairing of idea and obstacle, story and inciting event, can give us energy for the next phase: the rising action.

I’ll be exploring other narrative structural elements in later posts. I’ll also be giving a workshop on the use of the narrative arts in effective implementation for the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation, in Brussels in late October. And, as befits the theme, I’ve been noticing that since I had the idea for the workshop…well, let’s just say that I’ve been keeping good company with some of my favorite obstacles. But more on that to come…

Fear of the Pink Tutu

In Author: Amy Frazier, Creativity and Innovation, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on August 17, 2009 at 10:50 am

Over the past several months, I’ve been part of a team developing an experiential program on creativity and innovation for business audiences.

We are now stepping up our marketing efforts for the program, and in the course of this I contacted my network, asking permission to send info on “a creativity and innovation program.” One person replied with the question:

Are we talking about professional creativity, or artistic creativity?

I understood the question, and the concern which I think it implied: does this program impart business value?

But I was also struck by the terms which he used to frame the question: “professional” or “artistic.”

I trust that he is savvy enough to understand that many, many artists produce their work at a professional level; and I also know him to be a person enough in tune to the human dynamic in business settings to appreciate the artistry often evident in management and leadership. So I don’t think he really intended to imply that the two values are in opposition.

But I do think his language points to something important, something deeper—an unease with the particular type of human expression (for this discussion, we’ll label it “artistic”) which often seems, from the outside, to operate on a wierd, irrational level.

A friend and I (she is a businesswoman and artist like myself) have coined a phrase for this: Fear of the Pink Tutu.

This is the fear that: (a) if a particular type of artsy-creativity is allowed to infiltrate the corridors of industry, any number of serious-minded professionals will be seduced into abandoning their business objectives and throwing themselves into pantomimes of Swan Lake; or (b) that—in a somewhat less threatening but nonetheless similarly uncomfortable display—said serious-minded professionals will be forced to endure a demonstration of the same by an erstwhile team of artsy “consultants.”

I wonder about the Pink Tutu phenomenon. To be quite frank, I do believe, from years of experience, that there often is something mysterious about the “artistic/creative” process. And yes, that this is part of its power—for both the artist and the audience.

And, I’m also learning that there is enough stuff and nonsense out there about “creativity” in the business world, that the serious-minded professional is wise to be selective.

Still, the the idea that the sometimes mysterious, irrational process of “artistic creativity” might actually have business value needn’t be a risky proposition. Studies show that students who engage in music and drama classes score higher than their peers, not only in language arts, which we might expect, but also in math and science. Expressive arts enhance emotional literacy, compassion, and self-knowledge, at all ages.

It is, ultimately, that which is within us that drives us. But can we always name it? Or is it, too, something of a mystery? The degree to which we can experience the mysterious and seemingly irrational (or non-rational) components in ourselves is the degree to which we can fully inhabit our lives, professional and otherwise. It brings wholeness, which brings wisdom—which is a very friendly condition for professional success.

So, what color is your tutu?

Primary and Elemental

In Author: Amy Frazier, Creativity and Innovation, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on July 23, 2009 at 5:03 am

Two books in my current stack, having a conversation with each other:

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by educator par excellence, Sir Ken Robinson, PhD; and poet David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity.

Robinson advocates for finding your Element: that place where your natural talent and passion lie. Whyte’s sea is the metaphorical setting for the voyage we take through our working lives.

I have been reading Robinson cover to cover, as research for a creativity and innovation program I’ve helped to develop. For Whyte’s poetic meditation, I tend to page through here and there, dipping my toes in the water as it were.

I love it when books begin to have a conversation with each other. Here’s how it went yesterday:

Robinson: “When people are in their Element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose, and well-being.”

Whyte: “We need, at every stage in our journey through work, to be in conversation with our desire for something suited to us and our individual natures.”

Robinson: these issues “are of fundamental importance in our lives and in the lives of our children, our students, and the people we work with.”

Whyte: “The human soul thrives on and finds courage from the difficult intimacies of belonging.”

Robinson: “Being in your element often means being connected with other people who share the same passions and have a common sense of commitment.”

Community, commitment, passion, our true natures. Sure makes sense. Sounds good. But now listen to Whyte:

“…but it is almost as if, afraid of those primary intimacies, we have unconsciously created a work world so secondary, so complex, and so busy and bullied by surface forces that, embroiled in those surface difficulties, we have the perfect busy excuse not to wrestle with the more essential difficulties of existence, the difficulties of finding a work and a life suited to our individual natures…”

Woa. If finding the Element is so elemental to our well being, and if the soul thrives in the intimacies of belonging, but that primacy is covered over with secondary busyiness in the working worlds we’ve created…how are we going to pull it off?

Let me bring in a third voice here, someone I ran across in my coursework. Good old A.H. Maslow:

“…out of this deeper self, out of this portion of ourselves of which we generally are afraid and therefore try to keep under control, out of this comes the ability to play—to enjoy, to fantasy, to laugh, to loaf, to be spontaneous—and, what’s most important for us here, creativity, a kind of intellectual play, which is a kind of permission to be ourselves.”

I’m going to build the next link here and say that I don’t think we can really attain the sort of Element-supporting intimacy with others that Whyte asks of us (and Robinson implies), if we’re not being ourselves. If that’s the case, let’s suppose in the service of the primary and the elemental, that it is play (especially play at work) which is our missing ingredient.

Or, to spin the words primary and elementary just a bit, maybe it’s time for recess.

Janus and the Big Tent

In Author: Amy Frazier, Creativity and Innovation, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on June 20, 2009 at 4:46 am

Janus is the Roman god with the two faces, one looking forward and one back (or: in opposition). In the 1970’s, psychiatrist Albert Rothenburg coined the term “Janusian Thinking” to describe the oppositional energies that are often present in creativity.

An image of Janus hangs on the wall outside the creative studies library at Buffalo State College. (It’s fitting that he hangs at the threshold, as Janus was also the god of doorways and passages…)

Head of Janus. Butler Library, Buffalo State College

I just returned from my first two weeks as a student at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State. I learned many wonderful things, among which was this concept of Janusian Thinking. I’m holding onto it, in fact, because in order to embark on this education (which will lead to a Master of Science degree), I’ve needed to expose my personal understanding of how creativity has manifested in my life (from an artistic point of view), to challenges and probably also to changes. A dear friend, upon hearing my intention to begin the program, asked: “Aren’t you afraid it will destroy the magic?”

Yeah, sometimes I have been.

But my first two weeks in the program showed me something else that I find just as important as theories of contradiction and paradox: diversity. My cohort is made up of professionals in painting, photography, food science, consulting, communications, academia, government, etc. As we came to know each other over the course of the two weeks, it became abundantly clear that “creativity” is a Big Tent kind of place. There’s lots of room here—for the science, and the art.

As I think about it now, perhaps the role of Janus as presider-over of doorways is just as significant to creativity as his role of embodying paradox. Perhaps it’s in developing comfort with polarities (art/science; inspiration/measurement; sensing/thinking, etc, etc) that we really come to appreciate being lifted over the threshold, and into the tent.

The Organizational Actor: Presence and Peter Senge

In Author: Amy Frazier, BOOKS: Learn and Grow, Creativity and Innovation, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on May 29, 2009 at 6:21 pm

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Peter Senge speak. This was a real privilege, as one of his books has been instrumental in helping me along my path as an (organizational) entrepreneur in the arts.

A few years ago, I had a big “ah-ha” that what I had learned through years of being a professional actor could be very useful to the non-acting (read: “organizational-slash-corporate”) world. The vision sprung up full bodied: take theatre skills into corporations.

Yet I had lived my entire professional life outside their walls.

So, while I possessed a certain amount of certainty that this new calling was useful, there was also a fair amount of uncertainty as to how I would face up to the faceless (as the artiste viewed them at the time) suits.

Upon doing a Google search for the hopeful name of my business (Stages of Presence), I happened upon Senge’s Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, which he co-authored with Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers.senge-presence

 The book is a soulful conversation among wise and canny businsess philosophes, who are working their way toward becoming (if they’re not there already) wisdom sages to the corporate psyche.

Their book has an attention to interiority, open-heartedness, deep dialogue and concern for life that asserts itself from the very beginning. It stood my assumptions of  “the business world” on their heads. I thought, if these sorts of ideas can find expression and purchase in the organizational world, even though they may not yet be commonplace, then I have a path into this work.

When Mr. Senge was in town, I took the opportunity to tell him the role his book has played for me. When I mentioned the basis of Stages of Presence, he reminded me of something I knew but had forgotten: one of the founders of the field of organizational development, Richard Beckhard, began his career as an actor.

Senge told me that Beckhard’s work teaching relational presence had made a big impression on him, and others, when they were in the formative stages of their work, which has become so impactful in its own right.

When I think back to my early days as an actor, remembering all-those-exercises where we were to do nothing more than be present to what was unfolding (and how hard it was!), I feel tremendous gratitude for having been shaped by that experience.

Now, many years later, to hear a leader in the field of organizational change recount the impact this type of work had on him—not in the guise of training to become an actor on the stage, but in learning how to act broadly in the world—was a blessing.

It feels like it comes full circle. The book has become a touchstone for me. A quote over my desk reads:

The entreprenurial ability is an expression of the capacity to sense an emerging reality and to act into it. This inward-bound journey lies at the heart of all creativity.

Here’s to being present to the journey.

Digesting the World: A Table, A Chair

In Art, Author: Amy Frazier, Creativity and Innovation, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on May 10, 2009 at 8:33 pm

I’m working on my first paper for the creativity program that I mentioned earlier. The assignment: to research an aspect of creativity and how it applies to my professional life. The subject I chose to write about is the relationship of the physical self (and our awareness of our embodiment) to the creative act. In my research, I stumbled upon an account of an artist’s work that won’t let me go.

I found it in an article by David Peat, called “The Alchemy of Creativity: Art, Consciousness and Embodiment.” Peat proposes that creativity works like the alembic chamber of the alchemist, where there exists “an indivisible cyclical movement of projection and internalization, one of making manifest within the realm of the physical and then of ingestion, in coded or symbolic form, back into the world of the mental.”

Peat graphically expands upon the reference to ingestion in his description of the work of artist Janine Antoni, who has created art works consisting of lard and chocolate (600 pounds of each), which she has chewed up, spat out, and then reformed into lipsticks and chocolate bars. Peat says that Antoni has wondered aloud to him about the possibility of chewing up a table, spitting it out, combining it with her skin and hair, and then rebuilding the table.

The image of an ingested, semi-digested table becoming mingled with the spit and skin of a woman, has haunted me in the past few days. I note that Antoni doesn’t seem to want to swallow the table—not really eat it, just masticate it, pulp it up, melange the fibers with her digestive juices, just shy of complete absorption.

So now I’m wondering: after the taking in, and the transforming, and the act of putting our work back out there into the world, what have we fully digested? If I’m interested in the role of embodiment, to what degree might I really mean in-body-ment?  Does it depend upon what’s on the menu, what’s being in/di-gested? Because, if we’re talking about taking the world (and all its various renderings) into an alchemical, transformational, alembic-wrapped oogedy-boogedy,  you have to admit: there’s a big difference between chewing 600 pounds of lard and the same amount of chocolate…

Ultimately, I think my fascination with Antoni’s work is the length to which she goes. She offers a challenge, which has gotten under my skin. How far do I go? I know I hope to be transformed by the work I put out into the world. But how would I feel about pulling splinters out of my tongue?

Perhaps this is a challenge one works up to.

Would someone please pass me the chair?

Remembering – An Introduction

In Author: Amy Frazier, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on April 17, 2009 at 6:38 am

Hello, everyone. I’m excited to be a member of your community. I know Cyriel and John (we were together in New York at the end of March), and have spoken with Lisa on the phone. I’m looking forward to getting to know the rest of you more fully.

I decided to introduce myself to you through the topic of remembrance. I have a background in theatre – 20-some years of acting, directing, producing. I stepped away from performing regularly to write a book (which will perhaps be the subject of a future post; it is a memoire, to continue the theme…). And in the interim, I discovered some benefits about theatre, which I had overlooked when practicing it regularly. I saw how, in the time that I had devoted myself to both my manuscript (sitting, typing), and my job (sitting, on the phone), that my body had left me. Or I, it. I had the sudden sense of being disembodied, cut loose, un-present. I realized that my training and performance experiences had given me tools for being present to the world; but with the time growing longer out of practice, these competencies were becoming dulled.

This was the first remembrance.

I wasn’t happy about the realization. However, it did also bring to mind the possibility that many, many other people could be feeling the same way, only they might not even realize it. At that moment (and I can still remember the small cubicle in which it occurred) I began this journey, with the mission to bring the liveliness of the arts, and especially theatre, to those who may not know that such things are possible within the culture of daily work and life.

I had been chugging along that curving entrepreneurial path, when one of my colleagues engaged me in developing an experiential learning program called PCI Adventure. (PCI stands for Passion, Creativity and Innovation.) He charged me with conducting research on creativity to support the program activities. He gave me a book budget and free reign at the local Borders Bookstore. I went, I browsed, I purchased. Arms full of books representing many different perspectives on the subject of creativity, I began with Phil Cousineau: Stoking the Creative Fires: 9 Ways to Rekindle Passion and Imagination.

Thus began the second remembrance.

Cousineau, a writer, filmmaker and mythologist, describes the creative process as a sort of Hero’s Journey. But there’s a difference. Instead of going forward into the world, to Cousineau the journey of creativity is “back and down—back in time and down into the soul’s depths.” His book is impassioned, romantic and in its own way, unsparing. And it reminded me that I used to experience a somewhat different orientation to the world, one that had been richer in numinousness and curiousity. (I suspect the two qualities are symbiotic.)

This remembrance was also a complicated one for me. Though I was very glad for it. I resolved to remain aware of this energy and to keep the flame lit, even (and especially) as I continue to move forward into the very different energies of the corporate and organizational worlds.

So far, it’s a fascinating journey. Since beginning the program research on creativity last fall, one thing has led to another, and now I’m starting a graduate program in creativity studies at the University of Buffalo. When I’m done, I will have an MS degree. The “S” for science both surprises and excites me, having circled the question of an MFA for more years than I would like to count. I know that I will need to keep remembering, and remembering, and remembering as this new process unfolds. I know that it will be the “back and down” creative journey that will keep my course true, as I move forward.

I’m very pleased to know you at this juncture in my life; to know of your projects and your passions, and to introduce you to mine. One of the blogs had commented upon how so many of us are moving forward in the direction of world-change, with the conviction that powerful intentions to create a life of balance and beauty, relationship and justice can actually make a difference, and that the arts are uniquely positioned to effect this change. I feel the same way. That’s the flame to keep alight. I’m honored to be in your company, and I look forward to the journey. Back and down. Forward and up.