Monday, June 18, 2007

Constraints and Creativity

This summer, my job will be helping to teach kids with Asperger's Syndrome social skills through the practice of theater games and projects. To prepare for this work, the director of the project assigned some very interesting reading, including Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin (got to love that name). While laying out a plan for teaching improvisation skills, she also manages to ladle in some pretty interesting comments on the nature of creativity and mental health. Like this one:

Abandoned to the whims of others, we must wander daily through the wish to be loved and the fear of rejection before we can be productive.... Having to thus look to others to tell us where we are, who we are, and what is happening results in a serious (almost total) loss of personal experiencing. We lose the ability to be organically involved in a problem.... We do not know our substance, and ...insight is lost to us.

Theatrical improv exercises, as Spolin lays them out, provide one great workshop for resolving this problem:

The energy released to solve the problem [of improvising a scene], being restricted by the rules of the game and bound by group decision, creates an explosion -- or spontaneity -- and, as is the nature of explosions, everything is torn apart, re-arranged, unblocked.

I haven't tried her method yet, of course, but in theory, I agree with her and am excited by the possibilities. As a life-long creative person, and as a student of counseling psychology, I am energized by the connections between solving creative problems in my work, and "solving" the "problem" of daily life. Her books hints, not so subtly, that these two dynamics are twin siblings.

She isn’t talking about psycho-drama (experiencing emotions based on my past, on-stage). She doesn’t think that’s what helps us in this way (it might help in another, more cathartic or insight-oriented way). The exercise of setting up a creative challenge is more like life itself, and, if properly harnessed, could be a more suitable way to build day-to-day efficacy and agency.

In both life and her exercises, one has the ever-exciting task of "making something from nothing." I feel that challenge upon sitting down to write an essay or song -- and upon waking up in the morning to face an average work-day. They two are not identical, granted, but the feeling of starting each them is somewhat the same, in my experience.

In creative work, Spolin argues that we work best when we dream up certain constraints upon the "something from nothing" challenge. If set up adroitly, the tension between the rules and the creative freedom creates energy that intensifies the creative flame. And, of course, the constraints are built right into daily life, as we know all too well. But how often am I able to see them as factors that can elicit and intensify my sense of personal power and wholeness, as can the constraints in a creative game?

Food for thought as I read on and prepare for the week-long training starting a week from today.


Muffy St. Bernard said...

What an interesting project! I suppose that Asberger children have -- for whatever reason -- never internalized the social rules and regulations, especially the more subtle ones like small talk and body language.

I've never quite gotten the hang of these social subtleties either, and both of my parents have similar problems, and I can DEFINITELY say that none of us are "improvisers." I used to do drag shows with an improv troupe, and when it fell upon me to kill time or make a funny off-the-cuff quip, I never could. And I've always thought that learning to improvise might unlock those unused social graces.

For me, at least, it's the fear of saying something stupid or inappropriate that holds me back. Probably not the case with the Asberger children, though.

I'm curious about your insights during the project!

(Did they ever make you read Erving Goffmann in Psych? He wrote meticulously and elegantly about the "dramaturgical" elements of social presentation, very cool).

thinkulous said...


So glad to receive your comments and notes. Very interesting!

Yeah, small talk. That's an enemy to a lot of people! When I walk into a room full of people, it's so easy for me to start a conversation with someone (though I might have to force myself, depending on the circumstances). But I've had clients and friends who've helped me to understand what it's like to go utterly blank at that moment. "I *want* to say something. I just haven't the slightest idea *what* to say." It can be painful for them.

I'll learn much more about what it's like not to pick up body language once I start working with the kids.

We'll see how the theater games help. The idea makes intuitive sense, huh? This project's been very successful.

I don't think Asperger's folks' isses start with being afraid or anxious (although I think that sometimes enters in after the fact). I think it's more a kind of internal gear that's just not engaged. They have a "deficit," you know? But it doesn't mean it can't be addressed, improved. Sometimes wonderfully so, or so I hear.