Business leaders across the globe are in search of creative people. According to a study by IBM creativity ranks top of the list of leadership qualities, above other virtues such as integrity and humility. Yet if we look at our education system it would be fair to suggest that schools, colleges, and universities are wholly inadequate environments to learn the skills that will enable us to earn a creative living.
In fact many argue that school is where creativity goes to die.
In 2006, Ken Robinson entertainingly argued that schools kill creativity. It is a brilliant and inspiring talk for those of us wanting more from education. His lesser known follow up talks; “Bring on the learning revolution” and The Royal Society of Arts animated version of “Changing Education Paradigms” are also largely regarded as essential viewing for those concerned with learning. His book “Out of Our Minds – Learning to be creative” in which he first presents his arguments criticising our education system was first published in 2001.
Many others have contributed to the education debate since then and yet 12 years on we find ourselves struggling to realise a workable solution, much less a learning revolution.
Awareness of educations failings and its implications on creativity are certainly more prevalent now than they were but action is still hard to find. Governments across the globe aren’t finding much success and the growth of home schooling would suggest more of us are abandoning the very idea of an education system.
At the beginning of 2013 Sugata Mitra raised an insightful thought during his TED talk
It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken — it’s not broken, it’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated… The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.
There is an interesting conundrum here. If the education system can’t provide for a world that increasingly demands creative skills, where might we learn and practice creativity in order for us to earn a living and enjoy some version of success?
Surely we should all be looking in the direction of theatre or perhaps more accurately, collaborative theatre making and youth theatre.
For those of you alien to theatre or dismissive of its life enhancing attributes please ignore the word theatre, or the term youth theatre.
For too many of us the word “theatre” has become synonymous with boredom. Probably the result of being forced to watch too many excruciating versions of Shakespeare when we were far too young. Hence the word “theatre” often acts as a barrier to many who might now actually appreciate what it has to offer.
What is being proffered here in the word “theatre” is merely a room and a mind set. The best youth theatre’s and spaces of collaborative theatre making are playgrounds. Spaces of engaging and exciting experiments attended and led largely by open minded people concerned with the vices and virtues of humanity.
Why then haven’t more people looked towards theatre for the answers to learning creative skills?
Perhaps some of the reasons stem from the fact that the theatre sector lives on the fringes of more well established, respected and better financed institutions. Theatre must also compete with more prevalent forms of entertainment and as such, for many of us it remains on the very outskirts of our collective consciousness.
Within the theatre sector this fringe factor can breed a distinct lack of confidence in our ability to actively and positively impact on the progression of the human race. Leaving the more established and respected disciplines of the social sciences, philosophy, education and religion to deal with the task.
In these moments we might better demonstrate resilience. Offering our valuable insights no matter how much they might be ignored. Because as many of us know, what the theatre sector does is of critical value to what many of us seek – a more fulfilling existence – and learning and creativity are a huge part of that puzzle.
Theatre must also take care not to be seduced by its own passion for its art. By not taking enough time to look towards other disciplines we often isolate ourselves from the great discoveries of academia, science and technology. Perhaps by embracing more diverse sources in the work we make we might attract more individuals to value what we do.
We might also consider that Theatre has been duped into the largely restrictive models of business and the dictatorial pressures of the monetary system demanding increasing growth while often sacrificing genuine value.
And here is where our playground of exciting experiments, otherwise known as collaborative theatre making and youth theatre might play the sage.
We human beings are born creative, studies on our capacity for divergent thinking (an ingredient of creativity) have demonstrated this.
Divergent thinking is the ability to interpret a question in many different ways and the ability to see many different answers
When we are young, before we enter the education system, studies suggest most of us will measure at 98%, genius levels for divergent thinking. As we get older (and enter the education system) this significantly decreases.
One of the typical questions used to measure our ability in divergent thinking is how many uses we can generate for an everyday object, such as a paper clip, a brick or a plastic bottle.
Divergent Thinking is the regular staple of most theatre practice. In regular sessions we will all demonstrate and hone the ability to improvise the many possible uses for a plastic bottle. It may be part of a session on prop manipulation or improvisation but outside of a theatre context what this exercise promotes is our ability to think creatively, divergently.
Unique to the theatre world we are also able to communicate this immense mind trick in novel ways. Into tangible demonstrations that invite others to delight in looking at the world differently.
If we hold the plastic bottle to our ear, it instantly becomes a phone, with another swift gesture, it will transform into a rocket, telescope, voice modulator, musical instrument, home for ants, a leaning tower of Pisa for the population of Lilliput, the list, in this creative environment will go on and on.
It is interesting to note that in the illuminating Horizon film: The Creative Brain: How Insight Works they examine improvisation by studying Jazz musicians and freestyle rappers.
Why not theatre makers? Actors? Improvisers?
It is fair to say it could be due to the technical ease of measuring outputs. But we might also consider that it is down to one of theatres long celebrated yet frustrating idiosyncrasies – Theatre is of one time, the present, it is a live art form and can only really exist within a framework, a context.
Aye, there’s the rub
The skill of the theatre maker is nearly impossible to demonstrate outside the context of a rehearsal room or a live performance. Perhaps this then explains why theatre is largely overlooked as a great source of creative learning and education.
Another ingredient of creativity is insight which often leads to innovation.
Insight and therefore innovation is largely described as the pulling together of distant unrelated existing information to produce fresh ideas.
Neuroscience through neuroimaging now demonstrates that this is exactly what happens observably in our brains.
Creativity, insight and innovation largely occur in the right hemisphere of the brain and linear analytical reasoning is largely associated with the left hemisphere of the brain.
This is predominantly due to their subtle but distinct structural differences.
We can imagine these differing brain structures and their accompanying processes as two individual cities of information that we visit when faced with a problem.
The Left city – the city of analytical reasoning is closely surrounded by towns of information with excellent roads and transport links that travel quickly and allow us to get what we need relatively directly.
The Right city – the city of creativity, insight and new ideas, connects to towns of information much further away. These towns are less ordered, in more diverse locations and often placed along meandering roads, with slower and less linear transport links.
This less linear process often leads to distant seemingly unrelated information colliding and the subsequent explosions from these collisions then travel from our unconscious mind and manifest in our consciousness, becoming the burning light bulb of a new idea.
Being creative doesn’t just feel different subjectively, we now know it is objectively different
These happy accidents of creativity happen regularly in collaborative theatre practice.
Unlike the education system youth theatre doesn’t celebrate specialism and silo individuals into distinct areas of study.
At a good youth theatre we are all, at one moment or another, structural engineers, mathematicians, scientists, musicians, artist, writers, architects and designers.
When working towards a production we allow ourselves to use whatever information is most useful in helping us serve the show. We enter a supermarket of information, picking, choosing and learning what we need to make our ideas accessible to an audience, or in none theatre terms, make ourselves understood.
This is in fact similar to how we learn when we enter the world. Largely being drawn to what we find interesting or useful.
By regularly operating in this way we actively strengthen our ability to be creative, increasing the likelihood that we may stumble upon further creative insights.
Neuroscience now also reveals what happens in the moments preceding a flash of inspiration.
Before we have a truly creative idea, there is a surge of alpha waves toward the back of our brains, momentarily subduing our visual cortex, freeing us from distraction. Our brains seem to blink, allowing our unconscious to deliver the fresh idea into our conscious awareness.
All of us at different moments have had eureka moments just after the moment of shutting down; we might be closing our eyes, looking into the middle distance or zoning out, only to find our brain has found the answer for us.
An excellent youth theatre session mirrors this process by providing us a focused space free from the other distractions. It’s a space of many different people who will challenge, support, build and interrogate any ideas thrown at them knowing they are in a safe environment which accepts failure.
The only way that you can keep moving forward, finding other ways of expressing things about this increasingly complicated world that we live in, is by listening and observing not only to life around you but to the other people who are in the room. It’s not about a sort of…sense that you have to be democratic about these things, it’s a question of creativity that the process of making theatre is a collaborative process…for me it’s absolutely fundamental
Simon McBurney and Sir John Tusa (Interviewer) BBC Radio
Perhaps we should invite more psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers to witness the inner workings of theatre creation and youth theatre practice, they might discover it an untapped mine of creative phenomenon.
It might also lead more to realise that many of the answers to questions currently being asked of the education system and the leaders of business exist in the creative practice of collaborative theatre making.
Bring on the revolution!