The mark that the world leaders make is defined by their followers. We can be a passive audience to this process or we can be actors; we can direct others or we can improvise alongside them. We can participate in the play of life however we choose – but we cannot be left out. Leadership is co-created. It does not lie in one party or the other. It is an illusion in which we all participate; “leader of the creative process” is called a “director”. It makes it clear that in a group creative enterprise, where the outcome requires innovation, you need someone to give a direction to the creative work of the group. Directors in the theatre and in companies do exactly that. They point out the direction that things need to go.
Looking like a crusty flake of bark on the branch, Portia labiata, a thumbnail-sized jumping spider, stops to think. Portia is a spider that hunts other spiders – a risky business at the best of times. Creativity is new ideas, multiple ideas and new strategies… Luckily Portia has brains. In fact it is the veritable Einstein of the arthropod world. This is just as well, as right now it has its beady eyes on Scytodes pallidus, a “spitting” spider that also specialises in hunting spiders, jumping spiders in fact like Portia! And Scytodes has a secret weapon. From mouth glands it can squirt zig-zag jets of poison-coated silk that would snare Portia in a blink of an eye.
Like Portia, imagination is thinking about things that are not present. Nothing comes from nothing. We are always starting from somewhere, the stuff in our heads, the existing marketplace; the history, and the materials. There are no blank spaces in our heads and even the blank paper in front of us is a certain size, texture and absorbency that will limit what we can do with it. There are always initial conditions. In evolutionary terms, it is like two high rolling gamblers about to shove all their chips on a single turn of a hand, there is no commitment to true or false. Fortunately for the weak eyes of the Scytodes, it is content to lurk in its silken lair, deep in the tangles of the forest floor of the Philippine island of Luzon, until some passer-by is fooled enough to stumble across its web. Portia, on the other hand, has efficient eyesight.
Portia may be about the size of a fat raisin, with eyes no larger than sesame seeds, yet it has a visual acuity that beats a cat or a pigeon. The human eye is better, but only about five times better. So from a safe distance a foot or two away, Portia sits scanning Scytodes, looking to see if it is carrying an egg sac in its fangs. This is how Scytodes protects its eggs. To do any spitting, it has to drop its eggs first. Spotting a Scytodes with eggs, Portia would simply mount a frontal assault. It would creep to the edge of the web, making use of its camouflage, and gently tickle the threads. By pretending to be a bumbling intruder, Portia would lure Scytodes into the open for the pounce.
However on this occasion Portia is out of luck. No eggs. Worse still, perhaps Portia required “Plan B” – by crawling around the web edge and jump Scytodes from behind. With its store of “knowledge or belief” it can choose to ignore or use. So perched on a branch, Portia begins to plot. For a good quarter hour it scans the surrounding undergrowth, its pin-head sized brain working out possible pathways across boulders and branches. Metamorphosis is unstoppable, its mind synthesis, metamorphic patterns conjunctions or disjunctions. All complex dynamic systems are spontaneously creative. If you leave a complex dynamic system alone and do nothing to it, it will change anyway. Leave your garden alone and it will gradually turn into a forest. Leave your car alone and it will gradually fall apart. Leave your people alone and they will come up with something.
Surely this is creative. Creativity is a boundary phenomenon. Creativity happens on the edges of things, on the margins of an ecosystem, on the surface of a membrane, where theory meets fact, where a person meets their needs. Without boundaries to define it, there is no creative territory.
Engage the designer. The designer’s role is key; decisions about the design will have to be made long before the rehearsal. The creative input of the designer shapes the world in which the play will unfold. The retinas of Portia’s principle eyes have only about a thousand receptors compared to the 200 million or so of the human eyeball. But Portia can swivel these tiny eyes across the scene in systematic fashion, patiently building up an image point by point. Having rejected a few alternative routes, Portia makes up its mind and disappears from sight. A couple of hours later, the silent assassin is back, dropping straight down on Scytodes from a convenient rock overhang on a silk.
It truly is a dog eats dog life for spiders, or araneophagic, to use the technical term. Yet the Portia family, which makes up about 15 of the 4,000 known jumping spider species, is fast becoming a celebrity in the field of animal cognition. The honey bee, with its intricate social behaviour and waggling dance telling of nectar-laden blooms, has long been considered a “smart”.
Engage the actors and begin rehearsals, framing the emotions. In terms of time spent on getting the production together, the rehearsals are often the shortest part of the process. Directors often mull their ideas for a production for many years and conversations with designers may go on for weeks or months before rehearsal commence. Of course time spent “working” in a creative way is not measured as it is in other fields. Thinking, mulling and pondering are all part of the creative process giving them direct attention. Ideas will gestate for many years in the unconscious. The time involved should not be measured merely in the hours of face-to-face contact with people. The nervous systems of invertebrates were supposed to be no more than a bundle of hardwired reflexes. Certainly you could not talk in terms of thinking, planning, trial and error learning, attention, states of expectation or – shudder – consciousness. Insects and spiders could never have anything approaching a mind. Yet Portia does stuff that just doesn’t fit with the idea that invertebrates function as blind automatons. The production is brought to the stage and then presented to the audience. The interaction with the audience is also a creative process, a vital one and one over which the director has no control. The day-to-day performance also requires creative input of a subtle kind from the performers. But generally at this stage the director will leave the production, his or her work done. And apart from the occasional visit to ensure the production has not moved and developed too far from the form arrived at in rehearsal, the director’s creative input is over. Sometimes the production will be handed over to an assistant director to maintain standards in performance and coach understudies.
However, within the field defined by each level you want to maximize creative responses. Your job then, is to offer these constraints to the actors in such a way that they will accept them and be provoked into a creative response to them. The creative process thrives on constraint. It would be difficult to do a production like this, but given an attitude that accepts the constraints with enthusiasm, solutions to the seemingly impossible challenge of the task might begin to emerge. One of Portia’s principal skills is to be able to lure another spider out of its web. Portia will pluck out rhythms at the edge of a web to mimic a trapped insect or other intruder. In some cases it can recognise the resident spider and will know what rhythm use – a remarkable ability in itself. But Portia has the flexibility to try out various patterns in trial and error fashion. It can tickle the web lightly, strum it vigorously, bob up and down as if on a trampoline – whatever it takes to move the other spider into position for an attack.
Having some constraints makes you more creative, not less. This understanding and acceptance of constraints is a core value in making theatre. Where it becomes eroded, problems can occur. One of the director’s most important functions is to present the constraints as exciting challenges and to give enough context for the actors to be able to begin their creative process and become involved and enthusiastic about the challenge. At other times the director will need to police the constraints. Most of this comes down to the deft use of status and communication skills. Often the foe will be two to three times Portia’s size and the trick is to arouse its curiosity without provoking a full blooded rush. Portia will also take advantage of any kind of cover. If it is a windy day, or the resident spider is busy wrapping up a recent capture, Portia will time its advance to match.
There is good discipline in the theatre about this, which is central to the creative process. Improvisation, one of the principal creative tools for actors, depends on the idea of accepting constraints. Improvisation proceeds and creativity is unleashed, by the discipline of saying “yes” to whatever is offered and working with that. This principle is at the heart of creative work in groups. As a director or leader of this creative process, however, you need to both stimulate the creative response of people at each stage and at the same time be ready to define and police the constraints between them. While it is true that this accepting attitude to constraints, this readiness to view the givens as the material from which ideas come, is common to all artists in whatever field, it seems also to be rare in business. While Portia’s deception skills are impressive, the real admiration is reserved for its ability to plot a path to its victim. For an instinctive animal, out of sight is supposed to be out of mind. But Portia can take several hours to get into the right spot, even if it means losing sight of its prey for long periods.
Immediately others are involved we move to another type of creative process. We are no longer in the deep cave of our own imagination. In any group situation, manifesting a vision is not up to the director. It’s up to the relationships with others; and that is the territory we are mostly in, who have normal lives and are not artists or scientists. How do we work creatively and innovatively when we are working in a team, within a relationship, or within a community?
At the heart of the creative process in theatre is improvisation. In order to be able to improvise, actors need to be free in the right context. The creative spark that is at the root of improvisation requires that the actor and all those working with the actor be trained to accept and explore their first thoughts. People are wary about the idea of “being creative:” they feel it necessitates being original, they think it is to do with cleverness. But creativity, in this context, is just a general term for making things. Say a few words, and someone accepts it. “As soon as the gesture is accepted the director is free, has made a start and can begin to play and invent. If you listen to children playing imaginary games they spend a long time in preparation before they enter the invented space. They always begin from where they are and travel in small steps”. Crazy talk, obviously. There just isn’t room in Portia’s tiny head for anything approaching a plan, an expectation, or any other kind of inner life. The human brain has some 100 billion neurons, or brain cells, and even a mouse has around 70 million. Harland says no one has done a precise count on Portia but it is reckoned to have about 600,000 neurons, putting it midway between the quarter million of a housefly and the one million of a honey bee.
Jumping spiders already have excellent vision and Portia’s is ten times as good, making it sharper than most mammals. However being so small, there is a trade-off in that Portia can only focus its eyes on a tiny spot. It has to build up a picture of the world by scanning almost pixel by pixel across the visual scene. Whatever Portia ends up seeing, the information is accumulated slowly, as if peering through a keyhole, over many minutes. So there might be something a little like visual experience, but nothing like a full and “all at once” experience of a visual field.
Yet while much of Portia’s mental abilities may reduce to the way its carefully designed eyes are coupled to largely reflexive motor patterns, Harland says there is still a disconcerting plasticity in its gene-encoded knowledge of the world. If one population of Portia can recognise an egg-carrying Scytodes but specimens from another region can’t, then this seems something quite new – a level of learning somewhere in-between the brain of an individual and the genome of a species.
As with most things in the arts, improvisation is a craft discipline. It has clear rules and principles, it requires endless practice to perfect technique, and it can be rigorously applied to produce specific and concrete results. From the point of view of the director of a creative process an understanding of this co-creational style is essential. Directors need to be masters both of the rhetorical, story-telling, pedagogical mode that is necessary for framing the constraints and selecting and fixing the useful ideas, and also of the co-creational mode where they can be alongside the actors, encouraging and helping them to develop the ideas they are trying to express. But perhaps the most important role in this respect is to establish the context of trust – to model, and to enforce, the rules of the community of trust within which the creative group is operating.