Tag Archives: creative process

Making Theater is a Spiritual Endeavor

Caridad Svich

Caridad Svich

Writing is a part of you. Like breathing. It is essential to your life. And you can’t imagine life without it. 

by Caridad Svich 


The charge of the new underlines each act of writing for the theater. The ghosts of the past hover over the signs struck on the intangible pages on the screen. Strike. Strike. The fingers tap into the keyboard the breath of a new theater about to be born. Indebted to nothing but itself and the ghosts of the past that call upon the writer’s duty to bear witness.

In the act of writing, the political body of the text imagines itself in a room with the bodies of the public that will make possible the exchange of life that a theater piece demands: the exchange of a performance unbartered and given over to the ineffable presence of the moment.

Words are mere signs in a theater space. They dart and dance and wound the air with their weight, meaning and sound. Text is carved upon the invisible spaces of the theater, the spaces rendered body by actors and elements of design. The kinesthetic beauty of theater making allows for a rare intimacy of engagement with the public—one that pushes past comfort and into a suspended state of transformation.

Writ upon the theater walls are the ghost signs of past words, utterings, and inhalations of breath by former text builders and theatermakers. Each ghost sign is part of the present moment. Each moment performed is thus haunted. Spectral acts mark the spectral space that knows no boundaries beyond that of the imagination. Writing for the theater is an act of resistance. It is also an act of folly, daring, and one that asks of its makers and emancipated spectators alike to consider potentialities of being beyond the quotidian and sometimes, yes, beyond nation and state. Making theater is a spiritual endeavor. Its religion is not organized, but rather assembled from kinships with theater tribes across time.

One of my best friends in theater is named Euripides. Another is named García Lorca. And yet another is named Calderón de la Barca. These makers from the past are as much kin to me in the art of writing as are my peers in the field and those with whom I share an aesthetic lean. I distinguish them of course one from the other, but when I write, I feel as if they are all with me, depending on the play being made, and with me too are conversations about writing and of facing the curious challenges of writing a play—of making something that you know will always be unfinished, that will always be tested in front of an audience, and only serve as a rough score for performance.

In making a play, the writer obsesses over every detail, every line, and every action that the play puts in motion. Yet, the score is never exact. We know this when we write. The paradox of making theater, in building text, is that you are always somehow at its mercy, and yet judged by its merits. How does a writer become? Continue reading

Six Ways the Arts Help Prepare Kids to Succeed in Life

An aspiring actress on the Fountain Theatre stage.

An aspiring actress on the Fountain Theatre stage.

By Lisa Phillips

There are many things I don’t know about life and how the world works, but there are two things I know for certain. The first is that many young people are less prepared for the working world than they were 20 years ago. The second is that there is something we can do about it!

Don’t get me wrong, young people today are energetic, caring about the environment and passionate about social justice. However, when it comes to the skills they need to conquer the competitive nature of the working world, there is some work to be done. Success skills such as effective communication, accountability, finding solutions to challenges, and adaptability are just some of the areas that many members of the current generation are lacking.

So where can they learn them?

In those “nice to have, but not need to have” programs that our school boards seem to be cutting like they were last year’s fashions…THE ARTS!

If parents, educators and policy makers would just LOOK and see what I see, they would recognize an untapped opportunity to catapult 21st century students toward achieving their goals in life. I would like to offer six reasons why the arts offer excellent opportunities to develop these vital success skills.

1.     The Arts Don’t Focus on Right & Wrong

The simple fact is, if we learn mainly in an environment in which we pump out answers that are either right or wrong, with no middle ground or room for creativity, we will begin to see the whole world as black and white. We will expect every problem to have aright answer. Participation in the arts opens up our mind to the possibility that the world is full of color and there is more than one way to achieve a goal. When the pressure of needing to find the right answer is removed, it becomes easier to take a risk and try – and trying is the only way to succeed.

painting smile

2.     The Arts are Inherently Creative

The desire to employ creative people is not unique to Apple. The most successful companies assemble teams of people who are able to see the big picture, to make connections and to predict market trends. Even in a fiercely competitive job market, these skills will always be in demand. Unfortunately, our traditional systems of education are not designed to produce people with these skills. In arts education children are constantly being asked to try new things and think of alternatives. This kind of thinking goes a long way toward developing the essential success skill of creativity.
choir rehearsal

3.     The Emphasis on Practice

In the arts, it is understood that you will not be able to learn an instrument or be an incredible dancer over night. Developing these skills takes effort and hours and hours of practice. The arts environment encourages persistence through challenges towards mastery, a skill very much needed to thrive in the 21st century. When children participate in the arts, they will not shy away from learning things in their adult lives that are challenging, or take lots of time and effort. They would have already experienced the benefit of that level of practice through their arts training.

4.     The Focus on Feedback & Critique

Feedback is a constant part of the learning process in the arts. This helps children understand that feedback should not be taken personally, but that it is meant to challenge them to push beyond what they think they are capable of achieving. A good arts teacher’s critique is specific; it tells the student what works, what does not, and what they can do to improve. If we are used to seeing feedback as fuel for improvement, our natural reaction when receiving feedback will not be to make excuses, but to ask for more feedback about how we can improve our performance.

curtain call

5.     The Moment of Success

Each discipline within the arts has its own method of performance or presentation – an art exhibit, a play, a dance show etc. This gives children a sense of accomplishment after all of their effort and practice. This acknowledgement translates into a strong boost of confidence and enhances their drive to continue learning and improving. They have experienced a moment of success and when that happens they are typically motivated to seek even more success.

 StressedOutTeen-300x2006.     The Coping Mechanisms for Handling Stress

Mental health is a growing concern in our society and often people can become overwhelmed with stress. It is important to find ways to calm ourselves during those moments. Dancing, painting or playing the piano can be a great stress reliever. These activities help us let out our frustrations, and express ourselves without needing to use words. If children develop these skills early, then as adults they will naturally gravitate toward these and will have a way to deal with stresses that come up in their lives.

The world is changing so rapidly and the rules in the job market are requiring a different set of skills in order to find success. Long gone are the days when a university degree was enough to guarantee a great career. We need to wake up to the realization that the arts have a critical role to play in the development of the skills young people need to not only survive, but to thrive in the 21st century.

 Lisa Philips is the author of  “The Artistic Edge: 7 Skills Children Need to Succeed in an Increasingly Right Brain World”. 

The Power of Storytelling: Your Brain on Stories

cave paintingby Leo Widrich

For over 27,000 years, since the first cave paintings were discovered, telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods. Recently a good friend of mine gave me an introduction to the power of storytelling, and I wanted to learn more.

Here is the science around storytelling and how we can use it to make better decisions every day:

Our brain on stories: How our brains become more active when we tell stories

We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a play, a novel, a movie, or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events?

It’s in fact quite simple. If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.

If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active:

“Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex. […] Then, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.”

A story can put your whole brain to work. And yet, it gets better:

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

Anything you’ve experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Or at least, get their brain areas that you’ve activated that way, active too:

storytelling 1

Evolution has wired our brains for storytelling—how to make use of it

Now all this is interesting. We know that we can activate our brains better if we listen to stories. The still unanswered question is: Why is that? Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other, have such a profound impact on our learning?

The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think. We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found [that] “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust.

The following graphic probably describes it best:

storytelling 2

In a great experiment, John Bargh at Yale found the following:

“Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced. Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.”

We link up metaphors and literal happenings automatically. Everything in our brain is looking for the cause and effect relationship of something we’ve previously experienced.

Let’s dig into some hands on tips to make use of it:

Exchange giving suggestions for telling stories

Do you know the feeling when a good friend tells you a story and then two weeks later, you mention the same story to him, as if it was your idea? This is totally normal and at the same time, one of the most powerful ways to get people on board with your ideas and thoughts. According to Uri Hasson from Princeton, a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.

The next time you struggle with getting people on board with your projects and ideas, simply tell them a story, where the outcome is that doing what you had in mind is the best thing to do. According to Princeton researcher Hasson, storytelling is the only way to plant ideas into other people’s minds.

Write more persuasively—bring in stories from yourself or an expert

This is something that took me a long time to understand. If you start out writing, it’s only natural to think “I don’t have a lot of experience with this, how can I make my post believable if I use personal stories?” The best way to get around this is by simply exchanging stories with those of experts. When this blog used to be a social media blog, I would ask for quotes from the top folks in the industry or simply find great passages they had written online. It’s a great way to add credibility and at the same time, tell a story.

The simple story is more successful than the complicated one

When we think of stories, it is often easy to convince ourselves that they have to be complex and detailed to be interesting. The truth is however, that the simpler a story, the more likely it will stick. Using simple language as well as low complexity is the best way to activate the brain regions that make us truly relate to the happenings of a story. This is a similar reason why multitasking is so hard for us. Try for example to reduce the number of adjectives or complicated nouns in a presentation or article and exchange them with more simple, yet heartfelt language.

Quick last fact: Our brain learns to ignore certain overused words and phrases that used to make stories awesome. Scientists, in the midst of researching the topic of storytelling have also discovered, that certain words and phrases have lost all storytelling power:

“Some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more.”

This means, that the frontal cortex—the area of your brain responsible to experience emotions—can’t be activated with these phrases. It’s something that might be worth remembering when crafting your next story.

Leo Widrich is the co-founder of Buffer, a smarter way to share on Twitter and Facebook. Leo writes more posts on efficiency and customer happiness over on the Buffer blog. Hit him up on Twitter @LeoWid anytime; he is a super nice guy.

Inner Voices of a Playwright: Characters Talking or Demons of Fear and Doubt?

EM Lewis

EM Lewis

“I want to keep writing more courageously and living more courageously.”

by EM Lewis

All my characters are trying to wrestle the narrative away from each other right now. When it first happened, when I was working on “True Story,” it was disconcerting, kind of shocking and violent, really, but I went with it. And I doubted myself, because… well, who doesn’t, but I trusted the voices and followed them out into the deep, dark places, because I’ve really begun to understand, these last few years, that that’s the only way to do it.

It’s been a nice couple of years. I got a fellowship, and then another fellowship, so I quit my sensible day job and moved across the country, far away from everything I know, and my family, to New Jersey (!), and have been writing full time. And it’s been nice. It’s been… Madeleine L’Engle used this word “deepening” in one of her books, and that’s how I’ve felt, like I’ve been deepening, finding my true voice in a way that I’ve never–

(How am I going to pay the rent this month?)

–come so close to doing before. And I’ve been writing so much more than I ever ever have. New full lengths, and short plays, and a one-man show that cut so close to the bone I pretty much had a panic attack when we read it in workshop. Maybe not a full panic attack. I don’t know, I’ve never had one before. But all of a sudden my heart started pounding so loud I couldn’t hear Stephen reading anymore. But then I could hear again after a while, and I stayed really quiet there in my chair, and I don’t think anybody noticed. You’re not supposed to talk during the response period anyway, so I–

(don’t know how I’m going to keep doing this. I’m 42 years old, and what the fuck do I have to show for it? no husband, no kids, no house, no — is this a mid-life crisis? How fucking trite that would be. Jesus.)

[why is my internal voice so profane when I never swear?]

–shut up and listened. Is it a good sign when you give yourself a panic attack from something you wrote? It’s probably not a sign at all. But it was a hard play to write. It’s about guns and gun control.

Not really.

It’s about me and my husband, and how he died.

Which makes it really no different from any of my plays, which are all about me and my husband and how he died, except the rest of them cleverly call all the characters by different names and are set in different places, so I don’t think people realize that they’re all about us, that I’ve been writing about us all this time.

It’s called “The Gun Show.” It’s the first thing I’ve written in first person in a long time. It’s written for a guy to read, but he’s playing me, and at a couple points during the play, he points a flashlight at me, picking me out of the audience so they know I’m there and they can identify the guilty party, the one who wrote this thing, the one who… I took out the puppet. There used to be a puppet, and I used to have lines, talking back to the actor who is playing me, but I took them out, because it was already in there, in the text, everything I needed. And I put a clause in the notes about some time, maybe, I’ll be brave enough to read it myself, but that’s probably bullshit. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll do it. Maybe I want to wrestle the narrative away from my actors and claim my own words. Maybe I want to confess my sins.

(maybe I should move back home to the farm in Oregon)

[you’re gonna have to do something if you can’t pay your rent this month]

Into the woods. It’s a good metaphor. It was good back in fairy tale days, with all the romance and darkness, and it’s even better after Mr. Sondheim mucked about with it, because he added the complicatedness that we’ve all run up against, and said, “Yeah, the woods is that, too.” I just saw the show the other day, over at the McCarter, and the lyrics have been sounding in my head like a bell.

“Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood.”


“Nothing’s quite so clear, now. Feel you’ve lost your way?”


But I’m getting closer to something as an artist, I think.

(Is that bullshit? That sounds dangerously close to–)

Those terrible true things. The small personal true things and the larger global true things. I feel like I’m getting closer–

(But how do you ever know? Some people like my plays, I’ve had some productions and such, but how do I know if any of this means anything? If it’s the right path? Maybe I should have–)

[–been a helicopter nurse. I know that sounds like a radical notion, but there was a moment, back when I was at Chemeketa Community College, when I was nineteen, when I seriously considered it. Flying around and saving people. What’s not to like?)

(–done something different with my life, gone down a surer path.)

[What’s surer?]


[I’d be a terrible accountant. I can’t event calculate the tip properly.]

(There has to be something surer than this.)

[Is that even a word? Surer?]

I could die tomorrow.

(I really could. It’s been ages since I had health insurance. Looking both ways at the intersections only gets you so far.)

At a certain point… at this point, I guess… you start to ask yourself, is it worthwhile, what I’ve done with my life, what I’m doing with my life? What do I have to show for my life?

(The job hunt hasn’t been going well. I don’t need much, but I need something. I’ll mow lawns. I’ll wash windows. I’m not too proud to do anything, but I can’t even get a call back on most of the jobs I’m applying for. What am I doing wrong? Or does the economy still just suck this bad? Maybe it’s just that nobody wants me.)

[Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em all. You’re a playwright, goddamn it, you shouldn’t be washing fucking windows, you should be writing plays.]

{easy to say, but then maybe when you get back from that play festival in Fayetteville you find all your stuff out on the lawn and they’ve changed the locks on you, and there’s no power outlet for your laptop out on the lawn, girlie-girl.}

(Sometimes I’m terrified, sometimes I lie in the dark and wonder what the fuck I’m doing–)

[–but that’s okay, because you’re a writer, if you weren’t fucked up what the fuck would you write about?]

{yeah, tell yourself that}

(Do you lie in the dark and wonder what the fuck you’re doing sometimes?)

Stop, already! Just stop!!!

(A moment. A Pinter pause.)

This is me, trying to take control of the narrative. The writing narrative and the life narrative. And realizing that you never can, and you always have to keep trying, and you always have to keep trying, and you never can.

There is no “surer” thing than this. Nothing is sure. And we have to figure out why we should push the rock up the hill anyway, and how, and if we can keep a roof over our heads while we’re doing it.

This essay was supposed to be about artistic innovation, but I’m writing about my rent money instead. Because they are inextricable from one another. Both require all of our courage and all of our humility.

I don’t just want to be a braver writer, after all.

I want to be a braver person.

Here’s a funny story. I got an email from someone I didn’t know the other day. The woman said that she’d come across my play “The Edge of Ross Island” on her way to Staunton, and thought it was really interesting. I emailed her back, thanking her for saying so. And I asked her where she’d “come across it,” because… that was a funny way to put it. And it turns out she’d found it on the sidewalk. Laying there on the sidewalk in Staunton, Virginia, for no apparent reason, and she bent down and picked it up, and read it, and in her second email, where she told me all this, she said that she couldn’t put it down.

Something about that whole story makes me laugh, and makes me want to keep going.

Oh, world!

Courage, I guess, is the word I’ve been looking for.

I want to keep writing more courageously and living more courageously. Whether I do that in New Jersey or Oregon, while washing windows or making plays, while voicing my own words or asking actors to do it for me.

The boldest innovations came from people who acted bravely. I want to be brave.

(“Things will come out right now. We can make it so.”)

Be brave.

EM Lewis received a 2012 Fellowship in Playwriting from the NJ Council for the Arts, the 2010‐2011 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award for Song of Extinction and the Primus Prize for Heads from the American Theater Critics Association. Her plays have been produced around the world, and published by Samuel French. Recent: Song of Extinction at the Guthrie and Hostos College; Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday at HotCity Theater. Upcoming: Heads at The Rep in Pittsburgh, and the world premiere of True Story at Passage Theater in Trenton.

This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas.