Thoughts on the generative process

Anne Bogart, in her book A Director Prepares, talks about the research process in the development of new plays, and in particular talks about the importance of stopping the research process. I consider all of the work that we have been engaged in for the last five weeks to be “research” in the way that Bogart describes, whether it was looking at maps and charts and timelines, reading books on their history and usage, or generating creative responses to, and meditations on, this idea of maps and mapping that we have tackled for 228.  The latter has been vital research, this research-by-doing; research in which you have used you creativity to discover what Maps are, or can be.

Bogart observes that the research, or generative, process for a new show can theoretically go on forever.  So one has to stop it at some point, and that moment of stopping is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. There is no formula to determine if one point is any better than another for stopping the creative generation of content and ideas; rather, that point is determined by a wide variety of factors: the overall timeframe for development, the individual working style of the artists involved in the project, and their satisfaction with the content being generated.

I am someone who errs on the side of spending more time in un- or loosely-guided research and content generation, because I have found that once one leaves the generative phase of the process it is very hard to go back to it.  There is an unbridled creativity present in the generative phase, because when you have only the most general sense of where you’re headed, and when your main purpose is one of discovery, then anything is possible; anything might be relevant, anything can be experimented with or responded to. You have total freedom to play with your ideas and your creativity.  Once we start placing a structure on the piece, once we decide upon goals and develop expectations for it, a different kind of creativity is required.  There is nothing better or worse about the one phase over the other, but it is a largely one-way journey.

In the spirit of our class, I would liken these two phases of generative theater to “exploring the wilderness” versus “mapping that wilderness.”  Once the wilderness has been mapped, it can never again be explored in the same way.  Once the wilderness has been mapped, it no longer says: Here be Dragons; instead it says: Here be a Road, Here be a River, Here be a Temple, Here be a Lumber Mill, Here be a Village.  This is not to say that maps of the wilderness are bad; quite the opposite!  They are (in most situations) absolutely necessary, since our ultimate goal for the wilderness is usually to traverse it and reach some point on the other side.

The difference between “exploring the wilderness” and “being lost in the wilderness” is really just one of attitude.  It is a matter of how you look at the situation, and what your goals are for your experience of being in the wilderness.  If your immediate goal is to discover what is there, then it is exploring; if your immediate goal is to get through to the other side, then you are more likely to find yourself feeling lost.

Monday will be the 40th day since the semester began, and so, in a way, we have now spent 40 days journeying through the wilderness. When I look back at the work you all have done, and at the discussions we have had, this time has indeed been revelatory — both of yourselves and what you are capable of creating; and of the nature of maps and mapping, the whys and wherefores of representing information graphically, and of the incredible potential for narrative contained within such representations. I hope that, as all of you look back on the last five weeks, you can see it as a time of exploration, rather than a time of having been lost.  We have generated a glorious mess of content, which will serve us brilliantly as the raw materials for building our performance.

On Monday we begin mapping our wilderness.

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