Creative Thinking In Action

by August Schulenburg

in Interviews

On Monday, March 14th from 2-3:30PM EST, Kevin Gillese, Maria Striar and Seema Sueko  will lead the next installment of  our A-ha! Leadership Webinar series, “Creative Thinking In Action.” They kindly took a break from their busy schedules to answer some anticipatory questions about the themes of the Webinar,  including how the creative process can cross the footlights and impact all aspects of management and production. We asked 5 basic questions of all 3 participants, and then asked more specific questions of each.

1. This Webinar is titled “Creative Thinking In Action”. Where do you do your best creative thinking?

Maria Striar: My gut answer is “with my back against the wall”. But there are two kinds of creative thinking: one is in response or reaction to circumstances, and the other is speculative, a more “what if”? The “what if” thinking requires a greater degree of freedom from practical restraints.

But where, literally? In motion. I pace a lot. I tell people it’s my exercise regime, and I mean it.

Seema Sueko: For me, my best “creative thinking” tends to happen first thing in the morning, between when the alarm goes off and when I finally get out of bed. I have to grab my phone and jot down the notes there right away, or I might lose the thoughts somewhere between the bed and the bathroom!

Kevin Gillese: I find that creative thinking is difficult to put into a box. I can’t say to myself: I’ll be creative today at my desk from 2-4. I wish I could do that because it’d be more convenient, but I can’t. For me ideas can come at any time, and often only after allowing something to marinate in my brain for awhile. That being said an environment can be created that is conducive to creativity, but it takes big chunks of time set aside with no distractions, and stimulus (often in the form of creative partners) to allow ideas to grow.

2. What is the greatest obstacle to creativity within your self, and within your organization?

KG: Balancing the needs for practical thinking and business needs with the importance of creativity.

MS: See above; we have a full-time staff of two. I have to raise the money which would make any grand plans materialize. Not only does this claim a lot of my time, but it can tether the dreaming a bit, put a damper on the scope.

SS: For both myself and the org – I sometimes get too busy just keeping up with the work that I may not have the brain space to look outside the boundaries and re-examine things.

3. Finish this sentence: “Theatres need to put creative thinking into action because ______________.”

MS: …the process is reflected in the product.

SS: …our existence and the communities we serve depend on it.

KG: …if we don’t we will see our industry continue to decline.

4. What’s the most outrageous thought you’ve ever had that actually ended up happening?

SS: Forming Mo`olelo!

MS: We did our 365 Days/Plays thing in this empty Marquee factory by the West Side highway, and actually managed to work it out so that it was one surprise after another. Noo one — not even the theater insiders– knew where it was happening (spectators were met at a street corner by a “flaky ” untrustworthy guide), who was in it (a number of the actors were planted amid the spectators), how many people were it it (a ton more people, most in crazy costumes, were hidden and kept streaming out). It was a huge space, so we could also keep changing people’s perceptions of where they were with lighting (since few people had ever been to the space). Surprises kept unfolding and unfolding, over the course of this short piece. I thought it was magical. I worked very closely with Ken Rus Schmoll on it, I wouldn’t claim all of the credit.

KG: As an improviser that’s a tough question to answer because in shows I can have outrageous ideas actualized on stage all the time. But I guess the concept we’re currently working on is pretty radical, and I’m somewhat surprised at how willing to embrace it everyone has been. The idea that a theatre company can branch out into other media, using our live work as the core of what we do and seeing it as a starting point for a creative concept as opposed to a destination.

5. Are there any creative inspirations of yours you wish you could take back?

SS: Nah! It’s all part of the journey and the learning experience.

KG: I’m not big on regrets, I feel like any mistakes I’ve made were only obvious in hindsight and in the moment I was obviously doing what I thought was best. So while not every project has worked out perfectly, I wouldn’t say there’s anything that I would want to take back. It’s all been part of a growing process.

MS: This is why I love working collaboratively: usually somebody stops me before my stupid ideas go too far. I mean, the 2-week workshop in an unheated raw commercial space in Flatbush probably shouldn’t have happened. But we didn’t go forward and produce in this manner…

Bonus questions for Kevin Gillese:
1. You’re redefining Dad’s Garage from a Theatre Company to a Creative Company that is capable of producing work across several media. What is driving this redefinition?

DGT is the kind of company where audience members are often experiencing live performance for the first time, or the first time in a long time, so accessibility is crucial for us. We often find folks saying to us after shows, or in online comments, that they thought theater was boring or not for them and they were surprised to find the opposite to be true. I believe that creating quality work across several media will be useful in continuing to make it safe for people who have little exposure to the arts to come down and enjoy our theater work. We also feel that the word theatre itself has accumulated some baggage, the same kind that has people saying: nah I’d rather go see a movie that see a live show. And I personally have no attachment to the word itself, so I’m hoping that by stepping away from the term “theatre company” we can keep making it easier for those first timers to enjoy what we do. Surely a rose by any other name would smell as awesome, right? :)

The second part is financial. I want to find ways that we can compensate our artists better for the work that they do, and hopefully the additional attention the company receives from branching out to other media will translate into stronger numbers across the board (classes, ticket sales, etc) and we can start increasing our artist pay. We also recognize that film/tv can be profitable in ways that theater is not, and we’re striving to see the kind of success from these new projects that will result in new income streams for the company that we can use to subsidize our other theater projects specifically with the intent of raising artist pay.

2. How does your work in improvisation affect your work as an Artistic Director?

Improvisation is such a collaborative way of working that I find myself strongest when working as a part of a team. Skills like listening, accepting, and building upon other people’s ideas are the things that I’ve been training for a long time. That’s how it affects the job in general, but specifically at my company I think that there’s a camaraderie that comes along with improvising side by side with someone. I think it helps me hold the trust of my ensemble, and it also gives me insights into the working relationships between our artists as I get to see them played out in front of me night after night. And since we do late night shows, it also gives me a standing excuse to stroll into the office at noon.

(Kevin also asked to share this video of John Cleese talking about the nature of creativity – he found it to ring true, and maybe you will, too!)

Bonus questions for Maria Striar:
1. Part of Clubbed Thumb’s mission is to work on “funny, strange, and provocative new plays”. Do you find that embrace of funny and provocative strangeness on stage translates into how you work as a producer?

You mean, are we professionally funny strange and provocative? Depends on who you ask, I guess. We bring a sense of humor– or at least perspective– to bear on what we do. We’re a tiny company, so we have to allocate our resources very efficiently, which means that we don’t necessarily do things in ways that correspond to a familiar template. We are super hands on and engaged–we don’t demand that people agree, but they do have to engage. Some people might find that provocative.

2. Your Biennial Commission solicits plays that consider the relationships between truth, power, history, and personal responsibility. What role do you think theatre can play in examining those relationships?

Theatre can play many different roles in examining these relationships. It can also do more than simply examine, it can attempt to engage. I like to produce work that, critically and formally, inspires some post-show rumination from its audience, and this is what we are looking for in the Binennial Commission.

Bonus questions for Seema Sueko:
1. Can you talk a little about the influence of Mike Eichler’s book “Consensus Organizing” has had on your work with Mo`olelo?

I met Mike at a lecture that Richard Dreyfus was giving in San Diego. Mike and I happened to sit next to one another and we struck up a conversation as we were waiting for the event. He quickly realized that he had seen me in a play at The Old Globe, and I was intrigued by the Consensus Organizing Center that he said he founded. We exchanged business cards and I added him to the Mo`olelo mailing list. A few months later, I was offering a playwriting class and he signed up for it (he’s a very good aspiring playwright, by the way). He would always be the first to arrive at class, so every week I took that opportunity to ask him about Consensus Organizing (CO). As he explained it, I realized that it sounded a lot like the community relationship work we do at Mo`olelo and learning about CO gave Mo`olelo a vocabulary to describe what we do. I bought Mike’s book on Consensus Organizing, and he and I are hoping to work together to formalize and codify a “Consensus Organizing for Theater” process and guidelines so that it can be replicated in other communities.

2. You’ve been a leader in greening initiatives for theatre. Environmental issues are frequently seen as civic imperatives – do you also find that work affecting your creative processes?

Yes. I find myself always thinking about “Solving for Pattern,” the Wendell Berry concept that says we should try to find solutions to problems while minimizing the creation of new problems. So if theater is a solution to people’s entertainment needs, or storytelling needs, we need to be sure that we satisfy that need without:
- damaging the environment (or at least minimizing the long-term damage to our communities)
- excluding anyone (both in the audience and on stage)

And we must recognize that theater, as it is traditionally practiced in our country can be unhealthy on multiple levels, not just for the environment but also:
- it can be unhealthy for the community because of its transactional nature,
- it can be unhealthy for society as class and race problems are often exacerbated at traditional/dominant institutions,
- and it can be unhealthy for the artists because of the difficulty to sustain a career
- As a result, theater as it’s traditionally practiced in some of the dominant institutions of our country can be unhealthy for the organizations themselves.


Kevin Gillese started improvising with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta as a teenager in 1996. As an undergraduate he studied Theatre and Creative Writing at the University of Alberta; he then went on to take the Post-Graduate Comedy Writing and Performance program at Humber College in Toronto. He is one half of the comedy duo Scratch which has toured several times across Canada, Europe and Australia (highlights include appearances at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the English Theatre of Berlin and the Vancouver International Improv Festival). As far as film and television go he has some cool credits (like a wicked role in the independent feature film The Pharmacist, and appearances on the Australian Comedy Network’s series Stand-up Australia), and some laughably uncool ones (like a ridiculous role in the feature film Santa’s Slay, and a tear-jerking performance in the Canadian CTV series Going The Distance). He was the associate artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre from 2005-2007, before becoming the artistic director of the company from 2008-2009. This is when he launched RFT’s youtube project and international touring presence. He is currently the artistic director of Dad’s Garage Theatre.

Maria Striar is a founder of and the producing artistic director of Clubbed Thumb, an Obie Award-winning downtown company which commissions, develops and produces funny strange and provocative new plays by living American writers She has performed with Clubbed Thumb and many other downtown companies, edited an anthology of Clubbed Thumb plays and was the recipient of the 2010 inaugural Lilly Award for Artistic Direction.

Seema Sueko is co-founder and executive artistic director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company, a socially-conscious, community-focused, small Equity theater company in San Diego. Directing credits include The Old Globe, Native Voices and Mo`olelo. Acting credits include Yale Rep, The Old Globe, San Diego Rep and 5th Avenue Theatre. She is a three-time recipient of Chicago’s Jeff Citation Award and recipient of playwriting commissions for Mixed Blood. Seema developed Mo`olelo’s greening initiative, consensus organizing methodologies and led the Company through its selection as the Inaugural Resident Theatre Company at La Jolla Playhouse. She served as artist-in-residence at University of California San Diego’s Thurgood Marshall College for 2008-2009 and taught Theatre & Society at University of San Diego in 2009. She holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago and is a member of Actors’ Equity Association.