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Exploring Creativity by Exposing Yourself More

Actor/dancer Trevor Copp is looking up at a bright light

Engage With Your Art Form

Theatre guru Trevor Copp has a bowl of theatre tickets, roughly 1,200 of them. The bowl makes its stage appearance when Copp judges the Ontario Drama Festival (formerly the Sears Drama Festival): it contains one way of exploring creativity, and he has a reason for placing this bowl under the limelight at this moment.

The bowls contains the tickets of all the theatre shows he himself has seen. Copp tells the students, “There’s three things that we need to become great creators. We need to study the work, we need to do the work, and here’s the third one that is completely inadequately done: we need to see the work. […]”

He then adds, “These tickets did more for me than my master’s degree did, more than all this other stuff I did. This is actually the work right here. This seeing pieces over and over again.”

Copp founded Burlington’s Tottering Biped Theatre in 2009, a professional company emphasizing original, issue-driven, and highly physical work. He has been a professional actor, dancer, director, choreographer, educator, theatre devisor, and arts advocate for over 15 years, and his work ranges from classical to contemporary, performing in over 30 cities nationally and internationally and at numerous professional theatre festivals. His TED Talk, “Ballroom Dancing that Breaks Gender Roles,” has received almost 620,000 views on the TED website at time of writing.

Develop Creativity by Experiencing Creativity

Copp has built a meaningful, sustainable life out of his love for the arts, and he’s learned a few things. Being creative doesn’t mean just producing: you also have to join the conversation.

“You can get a degree in theatre without seeing a play. It’s just this thing that’s baffling to me,” says Copp.

I’m going to say it now, and you’ll hear it from me again, and Copp will say further down in this blog post: being creative isn’t some random talent that some are born with and others aren’t. We all have it, but you have to engage with it, and one way of doing that is by taking in others’ creative endeavours.

So, if you think that young artists are exposed to thousands of hours of creativity that you as a working adult just don’t have time to engage in, think again.

“The thing that I absolutely rail about,” says Copp, “is the lack of student artists attending art. The lack of young actors seeing acting, the young dancers seeing dance.”

Afraid of the Negative?

Seeing other works not only feeds your ideas, but by helping you discern what you do and don’t like, you’re learning more about yourself. The reason I returned to part-time grad studies this year was to be forced to read things I normally wouldn’t read.

(That includes Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, but having to force my way through that monstrosity of a book is teaching me about craft, storytelling, character creation…all of it…not to mention persistence.)

As you see various artistic works, some will speak to you, some will not, just like Grass’s writing absolutely does not speak to me. That’s okay, and that’s part of the conversation you need to engage in. I believe that society in general is losing the art of meaningful conversation, which includes respectfully explaining why you don’t like something. This isn’t your grandmother’s meatloaf we’re talking about here, this is art, in the broad sense of the word.

Neil Gaiman on Arthur

If you have kids, you probably watched Marc Brown’s Arthur at some point in time. Did you see the Arthur episode with Neil Gaiman? Sue Ellen, the cat, is at a book signing. Neil Gaiman asks her if she’s a writer, but because she writes and draws, she doesn’t know where she fits in. He tells her about graphic novels, something he’s also done, so she reads one and becomes inspired to work on one herself. As she begins exploring creativity, she creates a story.

Her friends don’t understand her work, though, and she becomes discouraged. Gaiman consoles her, saying that her friends are clearly interested in her story, even if they don’t understand it or even like it. She takes his advice to heart and continues creating.

In other words, her work has begun a conversation, but it could only happen because she engaged in conversation first, both literally (by talking to Gaiman) and figuratively (by reading a graphic novel, something she’d never heard of before).

(If you want an easy book to read about developing your own voice, read Arthur Writes a Story, by Marc Brown.)

But You Don’t Have to Publish

Sue Ellen likely hopes to publish someday, but you don’t have to. Ever. You can create your own art (painting, dancing, composing, drawing, whatever) in your own private space, where no eyes will ever cast their gaze upon it.

And that’s totally fine!

But in order to help you develop your sense of who you are and how your voice sounds, you need to expose yourself to others’ art and let it touch you.

Vulnerability and Art

Of the works that speak to you, some will really hit you, sometimes in surprising ways. In my experience, that “hit” is to my most vulnerable spot, the spot I need to open up in my writing so that it’s Lori the Author writing and not Lori the Copywriter.

“We’re in a culture that doesn’t sit you down and make you look at your vulnerability and make you ask questions about it,” says Copp.

Opening up your vulnerability in your art doesn’t mean you have to let out your deep secrets. This isn’t Catholic confession we’re talking about here: you’re exploring creativity. Therefore, it’s about opening up the parts of you that are scared to come out. This will likely never be one massive explosion of exposed vulnerability: it’ll be a trickle.

And again, that’s okay!

Encourage that trickle by returning to your art and seeing if you can notice where you’ve closed up and need to open yourself. I notice it in my work where I suddenly have my protagonist move into a scene that doesn’t naturally flow with the story.

“We have this incredible facility for healing,” says Copp, “and that facility, I think, really comes about for the people who are creating and continue connecting themselves to their [artistic] work. If you’re just technical and talented, and you ride on that, you won’t go through that journey.”

Exploring Creativity Isn’t a Crap Shoot

As I keep emphasizing, creativity isn’t some random talent you’re either born with or aren’t, and Copp sees things the same way. In fact, he feels that people born with a strong talent in a skill often misconstrued as creativity can actually fall into a trap that hinders their creativity.

“I think that our cultural assumptions, that someone who is born with an artistic talent is creative, is faulty,” he says. “That they were born with grace and flexibility and balance, all those things, none of that makes them creative.”

Again, just because some people are born with certain aptitudes does not make them creative. You have to explore creativity, not just replicate it.

“The fact that you can land a quadruple [pirouette], good for you. That doesn’t make you a creative person,” Copp emphasizes (like I do).

“I think highly talented artists have this danger where the talent skips the part where their work is in dialogue with their actual life, with their emotional, spiritual, intellectual life. It can skip all that because they’re too talented.”

Two men in ballroom dancing positions, with a tuxedo jacket on a mannequin behind them.
Jeff Fox (l) and Trevor Copp (r) in First Dance, produced by Tottering Biped Theatre

Copp’s own biography is a case in point: he went into theatre first for personal development. Born with an identical twin, Copp grew up so close with someone that he didn’t always need to express himself; he and his twin just knew what the other was thinking. Once he hit adolescence, though, he realized that the rest of the world didn’t communicate the way he and his twin brother did, and he had to learn to bring himself outside of himself.

In other words, studying acting was never about an inborn skill he had.

“I pride myself on being an untalented performer. In school, I was never the lead, never got the awards, I never got any of that. I was just a person who was like, ‘I think this is how I want to grow up.’”

Creativity = Art + Life

For Copp, his real life and his onstage life had to match. For example, Copp used to find it difficult to express anger in real life, and that transferred to the stage: he couldn’t act angry, either.

“I don’t know how to do something onstage and not do it in my life,” he says. “I associate creativity with forcing yourself to lock those two together: ‘What’s happening in my life, what’s happening onstage, how do I make sure that the two are in correspondence?’”

So, if you’re holding back on exploring your creativity because you believe you don’t have the talent, then erase that belief from your head right now. Instead, replace it with joining the conversation.

That might mean going to a local church that offers noon-hour concerts, or attending more art or live theatre shows, or joining a book club. You’ll learn more by this extensive exposure than you ever could if you’d been born with the artistic skills you’re trying to cultivate in your own life.

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What’s the Point of the Arts?

annie-spratt-253799 reducedI do believe the arts are a spiritual endeavour, one that’s not always easily put into words. But when I read about cuts to the arts in schools, or run into someone who asks what the point is of studying literature or fine arts, because, hey, no one can understand that stuff, anyways, it frustrates me for two reasons.

For starters, the arts in almost any capacity feeds humans just as the sun does. It’s obvious to me and I don’t see why people don’t get it.

Second, the moment someone complains, my throat closes up because of the frustration in that first point. It’s a weird thing I have: I get frustrated, and then the words disappear into a jumble in my head I can’t quite dislodge and unpack to calmly explain my point of view to someone.

So, without delving into scientific evidence (there’s lots out there, I just don’t have time to review a chunk of it and spit it back out to you in 800-1,200 words), I’m going to tackle the question from a individual viewpoint, which, I’m learning, is a very Romantic-period way of solving such problems.

The Arts are Expression

The arts (and that includes music, dance, drama, visual arts, and everything in between and across disciplines) by definition are about expression. Not allowing a human self-expression through the arts is no different than plastering their mouth shut with duct tape.

In essence, individuality is at the heart of the arts. Many artists hope to make a living with their work, but many use it as a hobby and outlet, writing away stories no one will ever read, or strumming on a guitar for the sheer pleasure of soothing the nerves. When we always approach the arts with, “How will you make money off of this?” we miss the true value for the individual.

The Arts are Culture

Moving past the individual, we come to our culture. There are most definitely songs and paintings out there I don’t like for one reason or another, and yes, I do sometimes wonder who was paid to produce “such a horrible piece of work.” You will also have your preferences for stories, music, and concert dance.

What I feel, though, has been forgotten is that freedom in art helps underpin our democracy. It’s no coincidence that one of the first groups of people dictators try to control is artists, everyone from painters to writers to all the specialists involved in the TV and movie industries. (The other main group they try to silence tends to be academics.)

Cultural Appropriation

There is a dark underbelly arising in the arts, though, and I’m not entirely sure what to think of it: cultural appropriation. As I understand it, it means using another culture in your own creation. Part of me revolts at the thought that someone has a right to dictate to artists what they can and can’t do. At the same time, being someone of German heritage, my back went up when a puppet on a kids’ show was wearing a Bismarck-era military helmet, faking a German accent, and pretending to be the bad guy. (Couldn’t he at least wear lederhosen and be happy while dancing a polka?)

Whatever your view on the subject, one thing is certain: if artists didn’t use their voices to produce their work, we wouldn’t be having these discussions about culture, power, colonization, and the like. It’s because of the arts that voices are being heard on these very difficult subjects.

The Arts Belong in Schools

Because of the high emphasis on self-expression, learning the arts in school helps children find outlets for their own personality. For those who have difficulty doing so in words, they may find comfort in music, drawing, and dance. For those who feel physically awkward, channeling their energy onto paper may help them share their feelings and release that tension.

But where’s the monetary value? The economic incentive? This one always gets me.

The entertainment industry is perhaps one of the largest industries in the Western world, and people still ask where the monetary value of the arts is.

Every business needs talented people whose gifts for creating are needed for marketing, communications, and even product development. Again, you don’t get that talent by not nurturing the arts.

Every scientist needs to present findings in a way that others will understand. (The most popular scientists, in my view, seem to be the ones who can in one moment speak to other specialists in their field and in the next, to laypeople, and convey the same information in a way each audience understands.)

Art and Peace

Our world is huge, and there’s no way I can humanly know all its history. But my general impression is that artists don’t start wars. They may start disagreements, and these disagreements may turn into huge arguments, but I’m not aware of them starting wars. I believe artists, through their vocation, study the human condition (with some exceptions). They see the value of human life and honour the exchange that occurs between us when we communicate our true selves. I believe artists are often more comfortable than many of us in dealing with human emotions.

Support the Arts

So it makes no sense to me that we cut back on the arts in schools and label them as useless. I know teachers only have so much time and training, and they themselves are also only human. But I don’t think we can afford to keep cutting back on the arts – humans need to express themselves, and what is school if not a place to help kids grow into an adult, one who is ready to participate in this world as a fully realized and actualized human being? And how can this goal be fulfilled without teaching the students the many different ways they can share themselves with the world around them?

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We are Creative Adults: Age is Irrelevant

cameras_reducedThis week’s post is short, because the week has been full of celebrations, and they’re going to continue into the weekend.

Our culture values youth, and I think it’s a great thing. Only a generation or two ago, youth were told to keep quiet at the table. Hitting a child for discipline was widespread and accepted, and in many cases, a child’s career was decided for them. I’m so happy to see how much we support our youth today, talk about children’s rights, and encourage children to find their true path in life. (Although I also wish some old practices, like teaching children to not run around in someone else’s house, would return.)

But if there’s one thing Western culture excels at, it’s the pendulum swing: whereas the older generations were once valued, the pendulum is now at the other side. A story has been making the rounds about Lyn Slater, a 63-year-old professor with *gasp* a sense of fashion. She blogs at Accidental Icon. In an interview from January, published at Today, she says, “I get a lot of emails from younger people saying … you’re making us feel like getting old is fun and cool, and that you can do whatever you want at whatever age.”

I shared her story on Facebook with one word: “Amen.”

I’ve still got a ways to go before I reach her age, but I look up to people like her and older who are breaking the stereotypes of aging. Our reverence for youth has, I think, made us blind to the grace, wisdom, knowledge, and fearlessness that can come with age. (I sometimes joke that I can’t wait to turn 70, because then I can start dancing down the street to a song in my head and people won’t think I’m crazy, just old.)

One skill I’ve finally developed with age is discipline. I’m not a Zen nun in Western culture by any stretch, but it was through discipline that I dedicated an hour to 90 minutes almost every night over the past two and a half years to work on a novel. That same discipline allowed me to start it again at an editor’s suggestion in November of last year and finish that first draft just this week.

My point isn’t to gloat, though. My point is this: Getting older lets us develop filters without blinders, and those filters are what help stay focused on goals. I’ve learned to trust myself enough that if something interrupts my writing routine, I start it up again as soon as possible. In my 20s I didn’t have that kind of discipline. I often regret that, of course, but part of growing up is learning to live with the errors of youth.

Whatever your age, it’s never too late to be bold, daring, and set large goals. And that means it’s never too late to start on your dream creative projects. Even if you have to take painting lessons first before you can start that mural in your bedroom, register for those lessons. You have the discipline to practice most days, the experience to know when it’s time to take a break, and the wisdom to know that, even if you don’t make it, what you’ve learned on the journey can be just as or even more thrilling than achieving your actual goal.