Encouraging Openness in Creative Practice


This article is written with actors and educators of actors in mind,  I hope that other artists and educators may be able to draw useful parallels to their individual disciplines.

In our work as Actors, how do we stay open to possibilities, open to receiving the unexpected, open to surprise, open to impulses, open to responding within the parameters of the play or text with which we are working? And as educators, how do we measure and assess our students whom we encourage to work this way?

Often the desire to get something right or the desire to please the teacher or director prevents the attainment of the openness we seek. A desire for 'right-ness' may cause a tendency for limited thinking.  The mind in looking for the 'right way' unwittingly builds a limitation because it attempts construct the way it 'should' be done. In artistic and creative terms nothing is more dissatisfying than the predictable. The very reason good stories intrigue us is because we are constantly wanting to know what happens next. Ironically the actor telling the story needs to let go of what happens next in order to commit to the 'now' of what 'is' happening. Although the actor telling the story has rehearsed the work being performed and 'knows' what's coming, the Zen way being recommended is that the actor embrace the courage to not 'know' what happens next in order to 'discover' what happens next. 

To encourage a commitment to exploration the mind must let go of having to 'know' what comes next. Having to know or pre-determine what comes next will not lead us to a discovery, rather, it points us to a destination. 

The process of exploration, discovery and assimilation is a means of deriving an organic performance. An organic performance can be seen as the point at which the actor is able to trust the assimilation process of rehearsal and allow the immediate and un-expected to occur within the form of the piece being performed.  Assimilation is the body's organic response to learning, the building of knowledge, which includes spontaneity and discovery each time the work is performed – knowledge and refinement of practice occurs over time through openness and repetition. 

To contemplate the nature of openness, or the nature of the in-finite - challenges the mind.  The mind tends to feel secure by identifying with constructs of: definition, boundary, rules, guidelines, expectations, beliefs and systems.  It is often a huge challenge to introduce the concept of 'not knowing' or 'not holding' to actors in training.  We understand the strong desire of our students to want to get it right, to know the correct way of doing the scene, etcetera. Our challenge as teachers in an institution, which requires that we measure levels of understanding, cognition and expertise is to link assessment to the training and to use units of measurement that do not contradict the qualities, we are encouraging our students to embrace.

If we pursue any sort of artistic expression with the view that something is either right/wrong, or good/bad we are working with a limitation against which failure is inevitable. Measuring our work in this way is set against a belief that something has to be black or white. 

It also implies that something has to fit into something determined by someone else, somewhere along the way, as the 'right way'. If a student says 'I didn't do it right' I will ask, 'according to whom?' Funny that the someone who knows all – the holder of all that is right – is always someone else, not us.

Habitually we may find ourselves measuring ourselves against our expectations, against our perceptions of others expectations, against the rules we have inherited from a demanding track coach, for example or from a dominating parent, a competitive friend, what we think the teacher wants or what we think is the right way - the list goes on.  To be in a constant state of competition with a set of ideas of how something 'should' be, strikes me as a sure fire path to irritation, anxiety, exhaustion, dissatisfaction and frustration. 

As teachers – we need to be watchful of assessing and measuring our student's work in a way that is in antithesis to the core philosophy of openness, creating the very thing we work so hard against in our classes and rehearsals. 

What might it feel like to work free from the pressure of having to get something right? What might it feel like to work with a desire for greater refinement or greater fulfilment? And how do we encourage this through an assessment and evaluation process? What might it feel like to take away the pressure of pleasing someone or something else every time we do anything creative? How might we go about this transformation?  How might we change a mind-set that measures everything against a scale of fit? How might we do all this and encourage a creative process?  

I do not wish to attempt to answer all these questions in one fell swoop, however I do wish to examine both the units of measurement we use in teaching an artistic practice based on an organic process, and the way we communicate and encourage this organic process. 

In my teaching and feedback and assessment of students I watch closely the language used and the way I use it. Firstly I make sure that the work done in class and in performance is always referred to in less-than/greater-than terms. This is an immediate antidote to the mind's construct of 'the right way of doing it'; namely the scene or exercise.  

Measurement occurs using such units of evaluation as: satisfaction-dissatisfaction, engaging-less engaging, involving-less-involving, instrumentally open – less open, impulsive – less impulsive and so on. Using these units has two main effects: firstly the mind is not asked to contemplate right/wrong and is less likely to build a projected image of how a thing 'should' be. Secondly by speaking of the work in this way the student does not feel judged. Applying these units of measurement encourages kinaesthetic, cognitive and sensory evaluation and reflection.

I make the distinction between evaluation as an open-ended form of measurement that considers levels of refinement and judgement as a potential imposition of a personal agenda or aesthetic. Feedback delivered as objective evaluation is received as non-judgemental, therefore the student is more likely to take charge of his or her own process and be self-encouraging. 

After or during an exercise in class for example, I will ask students to evaluate their work on the basis of such qualities as engagement, involvement, impulse, commitment and emotional range and connection. The actor/students participating and also those observing will all be asked to evaluate a piece of work in this way.  Evaluation is based in a reflection of the experience of the participant and the experience of the observer.  Evaluation using measurements in more-than and less-than terms allows for the continued possibility of refinement and fulfilment encouraging open mindedness.

Imogen Fayed has this to say in her journal:

…I am learning not to see things as the word of god from what other people say. I am starting to make the choices and not relying on others to make the choices for me… …making my choice to live independently is my first goal, the next is to live with generosity, to challenge myself and have more light-hearted moments. To share my story through my acting, my creativity and passion.

 …my statement. My name is Imogen Claire Fayed, I am practicing… the Actors state of being that is creativity, courage, risk, passion and awareness. I want to separate myself from others opinions, result focused behaviour, fear of the unknown parts. Coming to a place of understanding about my angers and frustrations, releasing myself to being in the building blocks of the process, realising that I am good enough to be the best I can be.  

Imogen's desire to separate herself from the distraction of other's opinions manifests itself many times in varying forms in most students I encounter. A process enabled by the language of openness and open ended units of measurement empowers and liberates the students over time from a dependence on an imagined or perceived 'rightness' and leads them to the enjoyment of creative risk taking.

I acknowledge that this discussion does not yet make the distinction between summative and formative assessment; that discussion needs to follow. Also this article is not seeking to diminish the importance of the critical eye of the expert practitioner such as the teacher, director or coach. Rather, it is seeking to encourage educators and actors to look at the way they communicate, assess and measure the work of an organic actor; one that is enabling, empowering and always open to an infinite array of possibilities.


©2004 Martin Challis

For more commentary and articles by Martin Challis, check the Archives.

Martin Challis is an actor and director "down under" in Australia.
He recently  commenced a coursework Doctorate in Creative Industries
developing projects such as The Raw Theatre and Training Company.
He's also the director of the Studio For Actors and Ensemble Works. 
And... he has a sailing boat!

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