My day begins early and shall for quite some time, because I am blessed with a fabulous young son, Tristan. Young…uh, real young. Let's just say that I'm still assisting Tristan through the basic “movements” of life. The early hours allow me to begin getting my perspective. While I'm changing Tristan's diaper I'm using the quiet time to think about things I saw or heard the day before. I often weave them into songs, making interesting little distractions for my boy.
It probably seems inane (most of the best joys of parenting do seem that way from the outside), but more importantly it's the beginning of a ritual with which I start every day. It's a familiar thing, a sort of talisman of activity, that anchors my day and my creative process. It's also a welcome break for Colleen, who's just finished the night shift. She gets some sleep, and I get to play with Tristan and gather my wits.
Twyla Tharp wrote an excellent book recently called The Creative Habit that codifies this better than anything I'd previously read or thought myself. The basic message of the book is that creativity is not a random gift from the gods; rather it is the product of preparation and hard work. It's about creating a creative structure, rituals, habits, that train your creative mind to tune into the things that inspire ideas in you.
I had also read an earlier book, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, that helped me to develop “tools” to foster my inner artist. The Artist's Way was also about ritual, preaching the value of daily journaling, as well as making structured time to care and feed your inner artist; taking your creative id on dates, literally. The book helped me early on in my career to get my head out of the trees in front of me in order to see the forest.
If you haven't seen or read either of these books, I highly recommend that you do. They can be part of the tools and work habits that every designer needs to assemble in order to nurture the elusive creative seed.
We spend a lot of time talking about technologies and tools in this column but, when you get right down to the heart of the matter, design begins within the designer. The best computer in the world isn't going to do much to improve a bad idea or generate a new idea all on its own. This generation of design ideas comes from within.
Some artists have the luxury of time. Letting ideas take shape slowly, working on a painting or sculpture for years is a concept foreign to us as theatrical artists. We live in the sometimes painful world of art on demand. Time restrictions and limited budgets are the fiber of our reality. Depending on ideas to appear out of the ether isn't responsible or reasonable for theatrical designers. We have to develop the ability to throw the switch and let it flow. The best way to do this is to build a structured process, toolset, and environment that foster that ability.
After I get into the studio every day, I always allow myself one hour to sort through email and surf the net. I surf for hard news on politics and world events; I surf for general technological innovations as well as new tech specific to theatrical design. I don't limit myself to projection and lighting toys; I try to take a wide view. You never know when something interesting will come from an odd direction. I surf the websites of other artists, including other theatrical designers, performance artists, flash and online artists, anything that might contribute to my own inner visual bibliography.
The sum of this surfing is a daily dose of information that can inform my creative context. When faced later in the day with design challenges, I am able to draw on this constant input to inspire or improve design solutions.
Another aspect of my artistic preparation comes from getting out of the studio (or the theatre) and seeing what the world has to offer. I try hard to go to other shows. Colleen and I are big believers in visiting museums, seeing live music, and going to libraries and parks. All of these places are feasts for the visual eye. All of them can have the same impact (or more) on the design process as any of the more “virtual” options I mentioned. Seeing Picasso on the web is one thing. Standing right in front of a Picasso is another. Real art, live theatre, musical performance, all of it is a powerful conduit to the left brain. It serves to keep me humble as well. There are so many imaginative people out there, so many stunning bodies of work. It always inspires me to keep my own creative mind “in shape.”
I can't heap enough credit on the idea of reading. The one thing that has stood out as a commonality with all of the design masters I respect (and have had the luck of working with) is a fabulous library. Relatively speaking, the library at our studio is in its infancy, but it grows on a daily basis. Perusing through it, you'll find some things you might expect: The Magic of Light by Jeanne Rosenthal, various scenic design texts from college, lighting console manuals, gobo catalogues. There are also books accumulated by researching show topics and show themes. Big picture books of Paris gathered for Victor/Victoria (we lit the 1999 National Tour and the Papermill production). A lot of Civil War materials (I was fortunate enough to work with Howell Binkley on the 2000 national tour of Frank Wildhorn's musical, Civil War). Tomes of retro Las Vegas signs, casinos, and nightlife (for our upcoming Vegas Baby content collection for media servers).
Each project ends up accruing several books this way. Learning the larger context for a show is critical in my opinion. It's not enough just to read a script. To have intelligent and productive conversations with other designers and the director, you have to have a larger view of a show's subject matter. It inevitably leads to a deeper and better informed design process. This quest for background extends to films and video as well. The information builds confidence and specific knowledge. It leads to a surety in your choices. It also builds your individual passion about a project. It's hard not to get caught up in the energy of a show when you truly understand what it's about.
I'm also trying to keep right up with what's popular (whether I like it or not) as well. Sometimes we're designing fringe theatre or opera, or something that can withstand an unprecedented flight of fancy. But many times we're designing a concert or show that demands a representation of the current flavor. I try to incorporate some of this daily.
Watching MTV while I ran on the treadmill used to be a morning habit before Tristan. Now I find it happening late at night. I try to plug in to pop culture at levels outside what you might expect to be relevant. Electronic gaming culture is one place where you tend to find the latest graphics, music, and aesthetic trends at work — not to mention some of the very innovations that are driving the development of the new media servers. It also helps when a new client (let's say a band or recording artist) calls, to know who they are, and what their big hit is.
Further tool development can happen by studying and practicing other art forms. It's astonishing what participating in a regular figure drawing session can do for your output, regardless of whether you're capable of drawing a “realistic” human figure. Get out there and sketch, throw pots, make mosaics, grab some crayons and color, for God's sake. By participating in the creative process in other forms of art, you are expanding the capabilities of your primary form, whether you know it or not.
A lot of us have had the advantage of higher education. Masters programs are excellent for developing design processes in our specific disciplines, as well as for creating relationships that may be fruitful over the course of a long career. But the education of a designer never stops. A constant flow of new influence and information is the raw material that designs are built from. So go out there and see, feel, taste, and hear. Read and look. Collect and catalogue. Build your own inner designer. The “outer” designs will benefit by it, and you'll be a better person for it.