Friday, May 6, 2011

When a cast becomes an ensemble - those special experiences!

It's been a very big week.. actually a very big year so far! This week was rather special though as we staged as first show Cleo Missing as 2Muse Productions. My partner and I (business and fun partner, Mary, as opposed to my 'life' partner Ray) have formed a production company to help create innovative performance work with and for young people. I thought I was getting a bit long in the tooth to still be working with young people (looking at big birthdays coming up and having worked mainly with adults for a few years now) but you know, it's been such a joy to work with young people again - I love their enthusiasm, their energy, their ideas and the openness to possibilities. It's also reminded me about how special and significant drama was in my life as a teenager, having those opportunites to experiment with other ways of being, finding voices and attitudes I could express and explore, and the thrill of excitement when all the peices came together in performance. I was particularly reminded of this one day when I heard one of our cast members say "I don't know how I'd get through the school day without drama" - I remember writing the exact same thing in a diary I kept when I was about 15. What I found magical and amazing about these experiences several decades ago, is just as special today... and I guess that is why I felt the call to return to working with young people, pay it forward as it were.

Just three months ago we held open auditions and met a range of 13-16 year old from across the coast. Several came with friends, and some knew each other from going to Mary's after school drama workshops with S.O.D.A. Others knew no-one, but came along, interested in the idea of performing in a professional space, extending their experiences beyond the school musical (and I'm not putting down school musicals - hey I've directed about 20 of them over the years) and some had already read the script online and wanted to be part of telling this story. But it was a big risk for some of them to do this, knowing nobody and yet willing to invest their trust in us.

Over the course of two weeks we found the right people for the roles and began our explorations and interpretations, moulding the script and energising it. With 'Cleo Missing' I had wanted to create some great roles for young people, ones they could get their teeth into and to relate to... and it was so exciting to see the characters blossoming and the young actors finding new depths and sides to roles. What was also exciting to see was the way the sense of ensemble grew - when that sense of self consciousness, of being afraid of the judgement of others, of being afraid to try something totally left of field ... all of that disappeared and the young people involved were able to accept each other, to know each other and to become friends. That is not to say everyone became best buddies with everyone else, but there was this growing acceptance of others foibles and mistakes, and support for each other.

We knew it had happened when it became harder to get people back from their breaks and the noise of animated conversation filled any gaps in rehearsals, when nicknames were shared and when certain words and sayings were adopted... (I can't experience an awkward silence now without hearing Gemma's ''awkies"). There was a collective sense of support and all of a sudden we moved from little groups of one, two and three with polite exchanges and interactions, into becoming an ensemble. It doesn't always happen - sometimes the egos, the fears, the histories are hard to work through and there just isn't the will or energy to be able to do it. But when that transformation does occur, it makes the whole experience more meaningful.

And that was what I was touched by this week. I know the actual performance experience, the stagecraft and acting skills they developed were what most of them came for and that is a very important outcome from the project. However, when I asked them to identify one thing that stands out for them from across the project... they said things like this:

"I found it incredible how coming into the production I knew no-one but everyone welcomed me into their arms and now they are all amazing friends"
"the fun one can have when everyone is working well together"
"How fantastic everyone is and how well we all get along"
"The great environment created by everyone in the cast and crew".

This has been an important experience in their lives, they created something special, and their hard work and willingness to trust paid off! This is not self-congratulatory twaddle by the way - I just wanted to take the time to note the importance of these types of deeply engaging, significant experiences for young people (and the not so young)!

Thank you to (in order of appearance!!) Cameron, Harry, Brylee, Mark, Andrew, Umi, Paige, Gemma, Liam and Julia - (and the little bit older 'young at heart' people), Mary, Mark and Bruce. My dream became your dream and now your dreams feed mine!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Want to be more creative? You can be!

I was invited to be one of 22 speakers at a creativity forum recently - crazy idea to have that many people speak and it did of course go right over time - but the concept is a good one and it was interesting to hear of the insights from artists, writers, librarians, musicians and many more. We had only 8-10 minutes each, so whilst I often don't write 'speeches' for these types of things, this time I decided I'd better.

Creativity in Practice – How to become more Creative

Sue Davis, Creativity & Research Forum, CQUniversity, 4 April, 2011

Who wants to be more creative? Who doesn’t? So how do you go about it? Play more suduko? Cryptic crosswords and DS Brain training games? Well it might help you improve aspects of memory (and the jury is still out on whether they even do that) but they won’t make you more creative. What does it mean to be creative?

There are many definitions of creativity, but common to many of them are words such as combinations, new-ness, originality, novelty imagination and difference. Koestler talked of the concept of bisociation – putting together concepts from different frames in new ways. Some forms of creativity are more significant and have more impact than others and that’s where the concept of little c and Big C creativity come in handy. We all make creative decisions every day. We might decide to try the carrot cake recipe with pumpkin instead of carrot. That’s a creative decision. It may or may not work and it probably won’t change the history of cake making (though you never know)… that’s little c creativity. Big C creativity, is the culture changing type of creativity, those like Picasso, T S Eliot in poetry, Beckett with absurd theatre, Steve Jobs with computer interface, these people (and those they have worked with) whose brave new combinations and experiments initiate new movements and breakthroughs.

So in my research and practice I wanted to develop my creative practice. I had been a drama teacher, writer/director mainly in school contexts but was interested in how young people were bringing technology into the classroom and performance space more and more. So I wondered what it might be like if we tried to enact the drama through the Internet – hence cyberdrama, which is what I explored in my Masters and then PhD. I found out others had already invented the name (Janet Murray) but I was able to explore new ways of taking live drama processes and exploring how they might work in mediated contexts. A bit beyond little c creativity, but not Big C perhaps – maybe more like a Middle C.

However, in my day to day working life I mainly work with students who are training to be primary school teachers.. and when I work with them on arts units, its interesting to see what concepts of themselves as creative they bring to the university classroom. Probably around a third of them have had significant creative experiences and see themselves as creative people, around another third are probably a big ‘iffy’ about it, and another third to not see themselves as creative or as having had a lot of creative experiences. So how do we build their concept of themselves as a creative and ensure that it is backed up by something (and not just wishful thinking).

One of the things we do is talk about creativity and unpack some of the myths about creativity – the myth of creative’s as mad, gifted individuals who are touched by the muse isn’t particularly helpful. Even those born with considerable talent need to really work at what they do. And those who are most gifted don’t necessarily go on to be the most successful, creative or productive. That was the problem with much of the early creativity research. The US army actually funded a lot of the early research with Guildford and co and they developed a range of tests and tools for identifying those who demonstrated divergent and convergent thinking e.g. how many ways can use a brick? People who can come up with the most ways and were identified as most creative, didn’t go on to be the most creative in the field though. Other research indicated that the most creative students at art school also didn’t go on to become the most successful later in life or end up using their creativity in a specifically productive way. So what else does it take?

That’s where a range of creativity researchers, including Howard Garner (of multiple intelligence fame) and others including Feldman and this one Czikszentmihalyi (he says he doesn’t mind if you say ‘the chicks, they all love me’) researched the lives of many creative folk and identified what they call ‘systems’ models of creativity. These models say, yes it is about some individual characteristics and talents, it’s about persistence, focussed attention and what he calls having ‘flow’ experiences (where you are so immersed in what you are doing that all sense of time and place disappears). He also says, it is about learning a lot and practicing in a certain area or ‘domain’ and internalising the rules of the domain. It is also about interacting with and having a field of others to support, critique and recognise your work (and these can be physical or virtual interactions). There are also times and places in the world where if you are part of a group or movement a hothousing effect occurs. The Picassos of the world did not exist in a vacuum. The Brill building originally was rented to music publishers because there were no other takers. By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses A musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building. Hundreds of hits were created in this building and community. Other versions of systems models also include product in there. So if you want to be more creative, you need to work on or consider all these areas.

Through my research with drama students I’ve elaborated on these three components. The individual who has to commit to engagement, build their creative practice in at least one domain and interact with others including communities of practice in the field (these can be live, or of course virtual). They apply this creativity through focussed attention and engagement, practice and generating or making things – products (and products often are featured in other systems models).

So the old adages ring true – if you want to be more creative, you have to put in the hard work. To be able to combine things in new ways, you’ve got to have some things to combine. This also aligns with other popular research. Gardner identified that people like Martha Graham in Dance, Ghandi in politics, Picasso in art had generally be practising in their field for 10 years before they had a major breakthrough. Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers (draws on research by Anders Ericsson) to identify the 10 000 hour rule. He draws on case studies of Bill Gates, the Beatles (playing all those 8 hours shifts in Hamburg) they all had 10 000 hours of practice before their major breakthroughs.

So what do we do with our students? Well we provide them with some different art-making experiences, also engaging with the wisdom of the tribe and those masters and mistresses that have come before us. We engage in collective creative activities where they can share their knowledge with each other and offer critical feedback and support… we also encourage them to reflect on their experiences, their concept of themselves as creative and to share their arts journey through a creative form through a digital photostory. For some of them it is a gateway experience as they come to re-engage with their own creative lives and prepare them to guide those of their students. I love viewing these reflective, creative works and most students feel a real sense of achievement when they share these creative pieces.

So what I hope to do is encourage people to find some time for feeding and cultivating their own creativity, it’s both professionally and personally fulfilling, whether it ends up being little ‘c’ or Big ‘C’ creative work. A final quote that sums it up for me – from George Bernard Shaw – “Create what you will” -creativity is an act of will, if you want to do it, apply yourself feed your creativity you can and will do it!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Is she or is she not?

Well last week I took the plunge and decided to hire a private detective. No, I don't think Ray is having an affair (he certainly is out sweating all day lately, but there is evidence to prove he was mowing, or weeding, or hacking back the jungle that's exploding out of the ground at present). But I hit a big fat dead-end with trying to find my birth mother and it's time to bring in the professionals!

Now the saga goes back years of course (nearly 50 to be precise), but the searching saga about five. A woman I was teaching with at the time told me how she had written to Familes Dept (Qld Govt) to get her original birth certificate. Once she received that, she then applied to find out if her birth mother had married at all in Queensland and that came through. She then had a name, searched the phone books and within a few months was playing happy families at Christmas time! She is in regular contact now with her 'other' family and they all get on fabulously. I was inspired of course, how amazing, how wondrous.. it all seemed so straight forward! I can do that!!

Needless to say my journey has not been quite like hers. I do know, of course, that for most adoptees, it isn't, that it's hard, difficult, uncomfortable, and even when it seems to work out, most folk don't end up meeting regularly and playing happy families in the long run. But I was just hoping mine might be a story with a (fairly immediate) happy ending.

There is such anticipation and hope at the launching of each stage of the journey - could it be just a matter of days, of weeks? Could I at last be able to answer all those doctors, hairdressers, kids at school, teachers, dieticians (and on it goes) who have asked about parental history, hereditary traits, did my parents also go grey young and where did I get those funny toes from!

So the letter went off (with the mandatory cheque of course as nothing is ever free in this game) and within weeks the birth certificate came back with letter, info on possible next steps and advice on counselling services! A name, two names actually, one for me and one for her... and a little of the tale is revealed. A 20 year old, from Melbourne, came to spend a few months in Brisbane, lived in a flat at New Farm and had a baby girl at the Royal Women's Hospital (in the private ward I recall my adoptive Mum telling me, inferring someone was paying her way). Stage I, Tick!

Stage 2, the letter to births, deaths, marriages, yes, with another cheque .. to find out whether the young woman from Melbourne ever married or died in Queensland. Not so easy. This time it was a 'sorry, we can't help you.'

Stage 3, so, she was from Melbourne, perhaps she went back there! So a few phone calls, more forms and another cheque later, off went the request to the Victorian Families folk. I must admit that time I was rather more hopeful and anxiously collected the post every day, feeling certain this time I'd find out something more. But you guessed it... a big fat NO again.

But someone sitting at their desk in administration heaven took pity on me that day and I received a phone call from a kind soul who said 'I'm not really supposed to do this, but I knew you'd be disappointed when you received our letter. I can't tell you any more, but perhaps do your next search in the ACT'. I was too shocked at the time to perhaps be as effusive in my thanks as I should have been - it was a very un-beaurocratic thing for someone to do, but such a wonderful humane action!

So.. more phone calls, another form and of course, don't forget the cheque... and off the letter went to the ACT. That time, a year, a place, a marriage and a name.... but what a name. Of all the men in the world, she married a man called .. wait for it .... John Smith. Yes, the very one, taking on not just a common name... but THE most common name and surname in the whole English language!

So I gave up for a while... months, years even - until the bug bit me again. More phone calls, web trawling, unexpected conversations with fellow adoptees and then I found myself at the state library... pouring over microfische looking through electoral records. Her complete name, even with a Smith on the end, wasn't quite as common as John Smith... and I was able to find one woman living in Melbourne at the time of the last federal elections. Within minutes the lovely lady at the desk on the state library (on the floor where heaps of folk do family searches.. so she's used to the joys and despairs of this whole painful process) found a phone number and wrote it out for me there and then. So close, I thought, could I perhaps be talking to her in just a minute or two??!! But no, I'd read all the websites and books that say don't ring, write first! The shock can be too great for the other person, a letter is better, be informative, let them know you're not after money and offer the possibility of a third person to mediate.

Now this search was turning into a bit of a saga (as is this post - not sure why I thought I could do this quite economically)! I went through several weeks of agonising, thinking through the alternatives, drafting the letter and redrafting... asking a friend (in Melbourne) to be a mediation person, asking Jigsaw in Brisbane to also be a contact point (yes just do it I hear you say) and finally i sent off the letter. Days, weeks, months went by... no response. So then I sent another letter, this time with a stamped, self addressed envelope and a request, if you are not this woman can you please let me know! Still no response.

So where to next - is it her and she doesn't want to talk - or is it not her?

So the next time we were in Melbourne - I worked up the courage ... to ask Ray to ring her. His recollection... it was a woman, yes she sounded 'older' but her response 'I'm sorry, I can't help you'. Her or not her?

So I left it again, a year or two have passed... but the questions remain. And they grow, every yeat they grow... and not just for me.. but for my boy too. I checked the phone number the other day - not connected anymore. And no listing for that name in any phone book now. MMmmmmm if it is her ... perhaps she doesn't want to be found.

So that's where we got to last week. Time to call in the professionals I thought - this is driving me crazy. If it is her I just would like to know.. even if she can't see me or talk to me... just some information, a few basics, and perhaps some inkling of why she is being so elusive. If it's not her, well then it's more forms and a few more cheques i guess. So is she or isn't she, that's the current question - I think she might be ... but I'll keep you posted!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Time to do what must be done!

Only took me a few months to figure out how to access this blog again now blogger and gmail accounts are linked and to set up a new profile to post from! Challenge overcome!

But I felt the need for somewhere to post my thoughts and developments as this year seems to be shaping up to be a big one ... and yes it is a big one birthday wise by the end too.
So the first major develoment is that I've decided to follow some creative callings of my own and with fellow coastal drama afficiendo Mary Eggleston am setting up a production company to stage some high quality performances for and with young people. We're calling it 2Muse Productions and we will be auditioning for our first performance next week. I met Mary last year and we worked together on a script/performance I developed based on the Eliza Fraser story 'Figments of Eliza' (see another blog I set up for that project for more info on that one). We worked togther and found a real synergies of interests and expertise in our collaborating, so I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth is and take the creative plunge. There'll be more to come on this development you can be sure.

Professionally, there's some applications and expressions of interest already submitted and others in development for some exciting research and creative projects. I'll wait until I know which of them might come off before posting more.

Personally, well I've decided that as I'm reaching one of those birthdays that is quite significant that I need to once more delve into the depths and attempt to find out a bit more about who I am and where I came from. Well of course I know the obvious, but there is a limit to what I know beyond that. Being one of the thousands adopted as babies in the 1960s, information about our birth parents was hard to come by for many years. When legal restrictions were reduced and it was possible to apply for some identifying information, I did so, but my quest was not so readily realised and my forays to date have stalled time and again. So this year I've decided to dig through the files again and to consider engaging other services to assist me in the search. I'm not sure how long it will take or if the result will be what I anticipate but it really is time to find out once and for all! And so I thought I might share some of the developments (if there are any) as we go.