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Mask-On/Mask-Off, Part I: On Creativity

This is the first of a five-part post about the creative process.

When I studied Commedia dell’Arte, we rehearsed in two ways: Wearing our character masks, allowing the character of the mask to move us toward their doings in the scenario; then without our masks, so we could examine and refine the technical aspects of our playing. We went back and forth between playing in mask and refining without it: Mask on, mask off, mask on, mask off, and so on.

… and that oscillation is the core of any creative process.

I propose that creation is the manifestation or emergence of an idea or entity; the process of bringing something or someone into existence.

If these somethings or someones didn’t exist before, where did they come from? One of my favorite demonstrations of the creative process comes from an episode of “Family Guy”. A flashback cuts to two extremely drunk men driving. One of them eats a bar of chocolate while the other eats from a jar of peanut butter.

“I looooooooooooove chocolate…”
“I loooooooooove peanut butter…”

The two cars collide head on, the two men fly through their windshields, and hit each other (the creative process isn’t always a wholesome one). Officer Reeses appears on the scene and asks what happened.

“He got peanut butter on my chocolate.”
“He got chocolate on my peanut butter.”

Officer Reeses scoops up the new concoction with his finger and tastes it. His eyes open wide, struck by the glorious new discovery. You can watch the clip to see the punchline.

(Only later was I informed that this was spoofing a series of Reeses commercials from the 1980’s. Creativity lives and evolves over time.)

This is the creative act: Combining multiple pre-existing ideas or entities to generate something new. One of the most daunting aspects of the creative process is the belief that the ideas have to be completely original, never before seen, and generated solely by the creator. What’s original is the combination, not the ingredients. The drunk drivers are upset by this combination of peanut butter and chocolate, but Officer Reeses sees brilliance in it. Even peanut butter and chocolate are themselves combinations of pre-existing materials. There’s nothing new under the sun; just permutations of what already exists.

Traditional Western music composition is the process of arranging twelve tonal pitches into horizontal lines (melody), vertical lines (harmony), and setting those lines to an underlying pulse (rhythm). Think of the endless amount of combinations that have come from twelve pitches over hundreds of years. Have different instruments play these compositions, and there are even more possibilities. Have different human beings playing these same compositions on these same instruments, and the possibilities expand even further. Take the same human being playing a composition on the same instrument at age twenty, age thirty, age forty, age fifty, and so on and the possibilities seem endless.

Sometimes these creative combinations come out of creative necessity. Somewhere in its oral history, someone decided the stories of Perseus and Bellerophon needed a beast of burden that could fly. Pegasus is a horse with wings. Some stories might address this necessity with a common beast of burden that can defy gravity, or by empowering a common flying creature to serve as a beast of burden. Dumbo the Flying Elephant is an elephant with ears are large enough to serve as wings. Someone likened an elephant’s ear to a wing and combined the ideas. Then, they combined this flying elephant with the societal fear of the unknown, and crafted a powerful story (I find the “Baby Mine” sequence in the original movie heartbreaking).

The myth of Pegasus combines elements of a beast of burden (the body of a horse) with elements of a flying creature (wings of a bird). Other mythical creatures combine a plethora of ingredients. The Chimera combined lion, goat, and serpent. The Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” has been depicted in countless ways in textual description and illustration, likely drawing from the entire animal kingdom throughout history and across cultures. People combine Pegasus and Unicorn to create the Pegacorn, a horse with horn and wings. All of these ingredients come from what can be seen in the world and our associations with these images.

How many interpretations of “Hamlet” have there ever been? In the last 400 years, the title role has probably been played by every age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and physical type imaginable. Shakespeare’s play itself was based on a pre-existing story, but that story combined with his genius created a script that would be revisited by millions of artists to tell the story from new perspectives. Even a single production changes at every performance since the composition of human beings in the room and the conditions of the performance are different from moment to moment.

Being present and available to the moment makes creation inevitable. Creation is an extension of perception. What exists around me combined with how I process it begets what I see. Seeing is a creative act, as are all sensory experiences. As long as we are alive, we are creating.

The challenge isn’t figuring out how to be creative. The challenge is how to make our creative output communicable. When creativity is “blocked” or people decide they need more creative outlets, it’s not for a lack of creative activity. It comes from the inability to communicate their creative impulses. Imagine ordering a massive print job of a new book thinking the title will sell wildly, only to discover no one is interested in reading it. The warehouse remains stuffed with unsold books,  depreciating in value and relevance over time. If this happens again with two or three more titles, the warehouse won’t have room for more books and the publisher will be discouraged from producing any more. Like any other repressed impulse, creative output gets pent up inside.

However, like any other skill, methods and tools for creative expression can be developed. The question is, what are the most optimal and authentically fulfilling means to express your unique creative voice? Or, are we benefitted by practicing expression through a variety of means?

The means is the mask.

Part II: The Mask

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