Category - Creative-practice
One-on-One: Steven J. Tepper talks Creativity Camp at the University of Hartford
A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Steven J. Tepper guided colleagues at the University of Hartford (Connecticut) through a week of creative experimentation. As happy as we were to see him back in the office, we were even more curious about how others are practicing creativity on their campuses. Here’s part of our conversation.
Curb Center: Steven, before the week was over, Dr. Sharon Vasques, Provost of the University of Hartford, was writing about interactions in her blog. You were on campus as part of the school’s Distinguished Teaching Humanist program, and you were working with Professor T. Stores of the Department of English, who happens to be their Distinguished Teaching Humanist at the moment. So what did you two cook up?
Steven J. Tepper: The invite was to come to the University of Hartford and work with 22 faculty from a variety of disciplines to explore different approaches to creativity and to think about how to integrate creativity more directly into their own classes and throughout the Hartford campus. Over the course of the 4 days, we took a variety of creativity tests and then discussed their usefulness for assessment; we talked about the cognitive, psychological, social, economic and anthropological approaches to creativity; we participated in “speed dating” where each participant pitched a course and got rapid-fire feedback from 5 different partners over the course of an hour; and we did several hand-on creativity exercises and discussed their relevance for our own research and ways such exercises might be deployed in the classroom.
Curb Center: Is it true that you incorporated improv into your design? Where did you get such an idea? How did that go over? (Did it send anyone sneaking out the back of the room?)
Steven J. Tepper: As you know, the Curb Center has been a big proponent of improv as a technique for developing our creative muscle. We have invited Second City Improv multiple times to participate in our annual creativity boot camp and we have used improv with our Curb Scholars. At Hartford, we used improv both to loosen up the conversation and create an atmosphere of fun and spontaneity, where all ideas are welcome. But improv teaches very important capacities as well that might be useful in the classroom – dealing with ambiguity; deep listening; the notion of teamwork and building on other’s ideas; and a willingness to talk about anything, to make random associations, until a “scene” or a storyline emerges that might actually lead to a productive idea or solution.
No one left the room, so I count that as a success. There were moments where people felt deeply uncomfortable – but there was great trust in the room and we worked through moments of feeling uncomfortable and typically ended most exercises in fits of laughter.
Curb Center: What did you notice most about the questions and/or the ideas participants were bringing to the conversation? What are faculty curious about? Concerned about?
Steven J. Tepper: The faculty were very passionate and committed to creativity in their own work and teaching. I think there were several concerns expressed over the course of the workshop. The first was that there is no consensus on what we mean by “creativity.” Several in the group focused on the idea of “non-routine” problem solving; but other argued that creativity does not necessarily have to be problem focused. Creative work can be exploratory, playful and problem-seeking, rather than focused on solutions. There was also considerable discussion about whether there was a difference between creative and critical thinking.
Faculty were also concerned that many students are so grade focused that they are risk-averse and would rather have very clear assignments than assignments that might be more ambiguous and require more creativity.
Others were concerned that the creative energy sparked during the workshop would be hard to sustain once the pushes and pulls of daily university life started up again in the fall. They wondered about how universities can create structures that foster creativity and collaboration on a regular basis, rather than it being some extraordinary activity that faculty engage in above and beyond their normal duties.
Curb Center: Dr. Vasques noted how she is interested “in particular” by your “articulation of creativity as being made up of teachable competencies that can be applied across the curriculum.” Where are we with identifying those competencies and finding ways to encourage them in our students? In each other?
Steven J. Tepper: I think we have a good sense of what would be included in core creative competencies. An initial list includes:
- Analogical and metaphorical thinking and remote associations
- Idea generation
- Conditional thinking and counter-factuals
- Expressive agility
- Radical revision and critical feedback
- Creative collaboration and nexus work
- Flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity
- Empathic reasoning
- Epistemic curiosity
- Problem Finding
- Pattern recognition and deep observation
- Risk taking and learning from failure
- Ability to consider the ethical, social and policy consequences of innovation
In terms of assessment, I think we still have a ways to go. There are some good creativity tests that measure whether students have mastered some of the capacities, like idea generation, but few existing instruments truly capture the complex set of skills and processes involved in creative work.
Curb Center: In these workshops, what are you hoping for for the participants? For the campuses you are visiting?
Steven J. Tepper: I think my hope is that participants leave with very specific skills and ideas that they can take back to the classroom. I would also hope that my visit generates some sparks and some enthusiasm among a core group of faculty, as well as the administration, for doing something big around creativity – to consider an initiative that would draw on their unique creative assets to animate the campus and re-think how they connect with students and collaborate across the campus.
Curb Center: I know preparing for and participating in these workshops takes enormous effort, but they also bring significant benefit for both you and the participants. What do these workshops bring to your own research & reflection?
Steven J. Tepper: I am always energized by the opportunity to work with colleagues across the country. Many of the faculty at Hartford were already skilled teachers and had experience teaching creativity to their students. I came back with several new ideas for my own classes. I also realize how lucky we are at Vanderbilt that Mike Curb had the vision to endow a Creative Campus program and that everyday we wake up and have resources and university-wide support to implement the types of ideas and programs that w
ere discussed throughout my four day visit at Hartford.
Curb Center: What’s next on the horizon for you and this topic?
Steven J. Tepper: There is so much more work to be done. I have just written a case statement for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters that argues for the importance of integrating the arts across campus as a key foundation for any creative campus initiative. Once the case statement is published next month, we will visit with higher education associations in Washington, DC, and work with universities across the country to begin conversations around creativity, arts integration, and higher education.
Curb Center: Thanks, we’ll catch up with you again soon!
Click herefor Steven’s CV, and check back for more One-on-One’s with Curb Center faculty, staff, scholars, and fellows!
by Elizabeth Long Lingo
I had the wonderful opportunity to present my ideas at TedX Furman University last week. At the end of all the presentations, their local student improv troupe offered mini-improv skits based on each of the talks.
Here’s the one spoofing on my idea of the Creative Practice Booocamp. Love it!
by Aidan Carr
Looks like this.
There have been a couple historical models for developing new musicals. In the so-called “Golden Age,” shows grew via the out-of-town tryout—a month or so in New Haven or Philadelphia where changes would be made by gauging audience reception. The first number of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “Comedy Tonight,” emerged from frantic out-of-town revisions. (This anecdote contains a valuable lesson in musical theatre craft that further entries will investigate.)
The main idea here is to introduce the work-in-progress to the world and see how it does—where do people tune out? Where do they sit on the edge of their seat? Are they laughing and in the right places? Worse, are they laughing and in the wrong places? When musicals made lots of money, an entire production in a separate city was worth the capital to put it up, despite it being an experiment: now, musicals are like films, costing millions of dollars, and producers are much more skeptical to throw millions of dollars at an untested product. Cue the reading.
A reading has the same goals—watch the audience, tweak as needed—as the out-of-town tryout, but none of the window dressing, both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it is cheap; fantastic sequences of, say, dancing dolls and malfunctioning sewing machines, can be left to the imagination. A curse because the imagination can provide more than just window dressing—it is easy to fool oneself and say “this will work with costumes and lights” when it really won’t. The pros outweigh the cons—out-of-town tryouts still occur, but typically after dozens of readings, each more ‘produced’ than the last.
An unstaged reading is the very bottom of the reading totem pole. Actors sit on stage in a row; when they are in a scene they stand, and sit otherwise. They memorize nothing: the scripts are in front of them on music stands. Someone even reads the stage directions.
Readings can come together very quickly—at NYU, the musical theatre writing program mounts unstaged readings of new work with actors that show up the morning of the performance and piano players who have never seen the score before. (Due to some last-minute drama, these actors read an entire ten minute script of mine, in front of an audience, that I handed to them as the performance began.)
Readings put material into the world, and for this they are invaluable. They are what catches the attention of investors, of producers, of other writers, of the press. More than this, though, they are crucial in finishing what it is you wish to share—they are the taste test before the Michelin chef adds a dish to his menu. And so it must be polished, elegantly and cleanly presented—even though you threw it together in a week. I have many ideas on how to polish my reading—look for them shortly.
by Aidan Carr
If a musical is a house, the bookwriter is its architect; he also shares interior/exterior design duties with the composer and the lyricist. Most of the spoken language of the piece (most) falls under his jurisdiction, but he also shapes the story itself, places the songs, cuts pages and scenes.
Like houses, the architecture behind a musical must be rock-solid, or else it will collapse. Structural design is less glamorous than aesthetic design, more conceptual, and considerably more difficult; bookwriters don’t get paid more for nothing. Not only are they relatively ‘behind-the-scenes’ as far as creative staff goes, since they theoretically contribute nothing to what musicals are all about (the songs), but they are frequently the first to blame when a show is lackluster—‘it’s got book problems.’ Not for nothing; structure is hard, and even professional Broadway shows frequently cannot master its design. Spider-Man had an entire number in which an invented spider deity sang of her charmingly-wicked adoration for mountains and mountains of shoes—cue $500,000 dollars in innovative costume design for highly trained ballerina-spiders, Loboutin heels on all 8 legs. This went on for five minutes.
Bookwriting—thankless, vital, at times (Arthur Laurents, Hugh Wheeler) elegant. More to come.
by Aidan Carr
Writing music before the 20th century was a lot like painting—you had certain colors and certain brushes, and you painted certain things. Like painters, composers outgrew these boundaries—painters stopped painting things, composers stopped writing tonal music, etc. But we still think of most music as having a pretty narrow set of ‘brushes’ or ‘paints’—the Beatles used guitars, classical composers write for the symphonic orchestra, Miles Davis played the trumpet.
You’ll notice I’ve neglected electronic music. This is for a reason. Electronic music and the thinking that produced it does not work this way. It does not have a palette; its palette, rather, is sound itself, the physical vibrations that make noise in your ear. Electronic sound is not paint; it is clay, clay under the hands of the most impossible alchemist, capable of morphing into literally any substance imaginable. Writing music on the computer is not painting, it is sculpture.
More on this to come, but for the time being, absorb this ‘sculpture’ by a British artist who produces under the name Four Tet. Like the work of Michaelangelo, its detail is pristine, exact; every sound is there for a reason, every detail contributing to the whole. It repeats, endlessly—accept this. Let what sounds the same wash over you—I promise you, if you do so, it will not be boring, it will be beautiful.
by Aidan Carr
The film I’m adapting is called MAY. It is has a cult reputation of sorts—it frequently makes pop “Top 10 Horror of 2000’s” List, a horror-hipster favorite. This is actually how I discovered it—on such a list, the author ranked MAY as his second favorite of the decade, remarking that it was “not so much scary as sad,” which intrigued me.
“Sadder than scarier” is a fair assessment; unlike most contemporary horror films, MAY focuses on the monster and not the victims. It has this (and more, as you’ll see) in common with Frankenstein—a difference of purpose, more about why terrible things happen than the thrill of them happening.
MAY was written by Lucky McKee when he was a film student at the University of Southern California, and it is a lonely film—the eponymous monster/heroine is in nearly every frame, and half of these by herself. May cannot hold a conversation. Even animals become suspicious of her. As a member of the outside world, such a withdrawal is unsettling, disturbing, a harbinger of something darker and perhaps dangerous. Disordered social interactions point towards inner instability, and this frightens us. Pariahs scare us.
I saw a man in a park late at night in Barcelona pace in tiny circles, reciting a mélange of Arabic and Spanish syllables with no connection, and I stayed away.
Imagine this from the inside. That man pacing in circles was speaking, trying to communicate, and yet all his faculties for doing so were broken. All he can muster are the short-circuits of syllables. How terrifying this must be; more than terrifying, how lonely.
This is May’s problem, though it is not as pronounced and all the more insidious—her signals too are broken, but they take on the illusion of order and coherence. They trick people for a time, herself included. May is fascinating—she makes her own clothes, she works for an idiomatically-challenged Eastern European veterinarian, she has an elaborate collection of fine porcelain dolls—for a time. Soon her obsessions—stitches and sutures, needles and scalpels, dolls—are no longer fascinating; they are dangerous. When her newfound ‘friends’ sense this danger, they too run away. Her own realization that she scares people is her anagnorisis, and nobody survives it.
The way May’s compulsions finally play out is this; all of the people she meets through the course of the film possess a body part that May finds particularly attractive. One man’s hands, a woman’s neck, another’s legs, et cetera. May has long since outgrown dolls and needs human company, hence why she meet all these people who rejected her in the first place. Nobody wants May’s company, so she resolves to fashion someone who does, out of all of the best parts of the people she knows. The creation of this new doll, ‘Amy,’ ends the film.
A strange subject for a musical, you’d correctly think. One key aspect allows room for music in this story, even begs for it. May holds unspoken conversations with her doll Suzy that drive her emotional arc; these conversations are full of the kind of desperation and yearning and pure desire that sings onstage, and dolls are an inventive and unusual instrument with which to sing those desires. Sewing machines, too, have their own strange and strangely beautiful music, akin to the musique concrete of Edgard Varése or the minimalism of Steve Reich. Out of this kernel—musicalizing May’s emotional interior life, accompanying it with the sounds of the real world like the sewing machine—I’ve developed a sort of musical vocabulary that underpins all May’s movements in the world. Several other implications follow from this central conceit, many of them structural—they will be discussed in the posts that come.
A bottom line: MAY will be a musical like Sweeney Todd, that follows a monster through her emergence as such; it will be a musical like Cabaret, with a nagging discomfort that sprouts into full fledged dread; and it will be more, an electronic aberration, a show soaked in samples and synthesizers and stitches instead of trumpets and saxophones, something funny and uncomfortable and uncomfortable because it is funny, something sadder than scary. (All this, I hope.)
by Aidan Carr
For the next two months, my writing here will document the process of creating a new work of musical theater. This process is lengthy and not particularly glamorous: indeed, much of the groundwork and infrastructure for the project that this creative diary follows has been in development for nearly two years. It is the final portion of the working, however, the tail end, that is most interesting; myths of frantic out-of-town tryouts and hotel rooms covered in scribbled-over drafts abound in theater circles; any given episode of NBC’s Smash inevitably invokes the trope. These myths are hyperbolic iterations, but they stem from a real and palpable creative excitement surrounding musical theater work nearing completion—an excitement that I hope to communicate in the postings that follow.
Musical theater typically is a most collaborative art form—there is a composer, a lyricist, a book writer, a director, producers, a musical director, an entire orchestra and ensemble of singers/dancers, and a host of other design staff, every single person contributing to the aesthetic of what the audience experiences. My project is somewhat unusual because, by its nature as an academic thesis, I am required to assume the first four or five roles by myself. Normally, this would be more than problematic, it would be fatal to a production; hence, a lowering of ambitions is in order. The end result of this process is to be what’s termed an “unstaged reading.” A company of actors with scripts and scores on music stands will take the stage, stand when they are in a scene, and sit down when they are not. Two or three musicians and a narrator to read stage directions will accompany them.
The work itself is an adaptation of a horror film called MAY, directed by Lucky McKee. It is a macabre fairy-tale of sorts, an amalgamation of Frankenstein, Faust, and The Bell Jar (at its heart), and its two most distinctive features are an ensemble of singing imaginary dolls and the extensive and intricate employment of electronic music.
Thanks for reading. Now let’s get started.
by Elizabeth Long Lingo
Interested in hearing Jack White, Beck, James Murphy talk about their creative process? Check out multi-media artist Doug Aitken’s new installation of filmed conversations:
Hat tip to Curb Scholar, Keith Berquist
by Elizabeth Long Lingo
One of the challenges in offering a creative practice boot camp is helping experts translate their everyday practice into teachable hands-on workshops that can engage participants from all backgrounds–faculty, staff, students–and from all parts of the University. In my research, and as I’ve developed my programs at Vanderbilt I regularly ask “experts” to describe, illuminate, teach their actual creative “practice”—the joys and difficult challenges they face, the complexities and tradeoffs they need to manage, the implicit assumptions that shape the way they work. The “teaching” approach is so different than the request for the typical keynote speech or presentation of information—which often preferences success and final results over process and wisdom gained over time.
As a society I feel we rarely ask individuals to do this, and as a result both experts and “students” of all ages miss out on a wonderful opportunity to translate, reflect, and learn. So, I offer my great thanks to all the presenters for embracing this invitation to share and translate your practice.
Great thanks to this year’s presenters for sharing their knowledge and wisdom, Empathic Interviewing (Jacki Lyden, NPR);Improvisation (Second City Improv); Storytelling (Minton Sparks), Brainstorming (Barry Kudrowitz); Looking/Thinking by Analogy (Kerry Ruef, The Private Eye); and Data Visualization (Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen Design).