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Making New

Alexis Scheer opines on how limits and commitments encourage creativity. logo

Sidewalk Sondheim! (Guess that musical)
(© Alexis Scheer)
What makes us artists? I'm pretty sure it's not the fact that we create; it's the intention behind why we create. I'm probably the luckiest person I know, in the sense that I am surrounded by people who make things. And if I ask any of my friends why they do it, a lot of them will reply that this is the only thing they can do. It's that internal drummer we march to. Martha Graham calls it a "blessed unrest." I love that. It's like this need to expose. A need to bring things to the light. A need to break through. But, break through what? I'm implying that there is some sort of obstacle. And that's important. Creativity is the result of limits.

The most elementary example of this would be flying in your "spaceship" [cardboard box] as a kid. I think about the summer days I spent at my dad's office constructing houses out of cardboard. Why did I do it? I was limited. But being limited gave me freedom and the ability to think laterally. Makin' somethin' outta nothin', right?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because someone recently asked me for advice on how to start writing. I said, "just write." To which they replied, "about what?" This is where limits come in handy. When you step into a playwriting class or pick up a book on playwriting, what you're really doing is employing rules and structure in order to "free the channel."

About a year ago, a friend of mine and I started engaging in "Play Wars," which has been our out-of-classroom classroom. We set assignments, guidelines, deadlines, and then email each other our work once it's finished. And we both know that the goal isn't for it to be good, it's for it to be finished. I was in a writing workshop with Stephen Schwartz a number of years ago, and he talked about the need to keep blazing through our work even if we know it's not great. A complete skeleton is more useful than a polished fingernail.

Probably some of the best advice I've ever received (I wish I remember who gave it to me) was to tell people you've done something before you've actually done it. Ok, yes, that is technically lying. But if you're someone of your word, then really you're just making a promise you have to keep.

I experimented with this idea when I started working on my latest play. Upon finishing a preliminary outline, I announced on Facebook that I had written my first full-length drama. But I didn't stop there. I also organized a first reading of the play to happen in my living room that Friday night. Uh oh. Now I've made a commitment I have to follow through on. So I sat down for 6 hours and wrote the first draft of my play. I really think it can be that easy.

If you haven't already guessed, I love new work. I literally feel like if we don't encourage the development of new work, the American Theatre will cease to exist. Now to put on my "actor" hat, the one thing I want to engage in more is devised theatre. I firmly believe that if you put a group of artists in a room and give them a little structure, something beautiful can happen.

Now, the most important thing I have to say about creating art is that once you've made it you need to share it! This is the scary part. I still hold my breath when I sit through readings of my own work. But you have to do it. Art doesn't exist without the audience. There are going to be people who like your work. People who hate it. People who can't form their own opinion, so they adopt those of their friends. It doesn't matter. You have no control over perception, so focus on the intention.

Andrew Lippa was the artist in residency at The Boston Conservatory last week, and I had the great privilege of listening to him speak (and sing!). I'll go into detail about this experience in another post, but I want to leave you with the one thing he said that resonated the most, "How empty of me to be so full of you."

Don't worry about them. Worry about you. It's not someone else's drum you're marching to, it's yours.


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