Art is a system of communication about the human experience. Whether a painting, a play, or a piece of sculpture, a work of art communicates from the artist(s) to the audience/viewer/participant, through a dynamic system of verbal and nonverbal languages. The way we craft this communication reflects a set of beliefs and assumptions. As artists, every choice we make (from content, form, genre, process, etc) reflects our worldview. You tell certain stories because that is what you see. You may perform because the live act is something you value. You may write comedy because you think people like to laugh. Our beliefs and assumptions come through in our work.
We are aware of some components and unaware of other components of that set of beliefs/assumptions. Sometimes we know what we’re doing and sometimes we don’t. We’ve all got our “things” that we constantly explore. Identity, belonging, love, sex, death, whatever, we as artists generally become aware of the big themes in our work at some point. But then there are other assumptions about our world and about our discipline that appear in our work that we’re completely unaware of. This is easier to think about in a historical perspective than in a contemporary one of course. For example, in my first-ever acting class (cringe) I worked on a monologue from Antigone. My first approach with it was to play from a basis of assumption about style, based on what I knew about the form of ancient Greek theatre. When my teacher challenged me on those assumptions, my worldview shifted—I could play the situation rather than playing an assumed set of rules. As a completely different example, think of Ibsen’s treatment of his subject matter and how this challenged the assumptions of what could go in a play or couldn’t. More broadly, consider the ideas that theatre should be in a theatre or that theatre needs to have actors. There are multiplicities of instances in which artists making site-specific work, guerrilla theatre, and interactive performance pieces challenge these ideas.
When we have something revealed to us that we have previously taken for granted, and then we use that in our art, then we’re working in the territory of innovation. The point here is, we have to become aware of boundaries before we can push them. We don’t need to know what the beyond is, or even explicitly what all of the defining characteristics of the boundary we perceive are. This shift in perception can be about art, or it can be about global politics or a personal experience of the impact of technology on contemporary life. The important part of this is that it is the shift in perception that opens a window for us to innovate.
The territory of innovation can arise from one Eureka! moment, or from an inkling, a hunch. There are times that you realize the assumptions you’ve made and a fully formed alternative simultaneously. Those moments feel great. Recently in the process of reimagining a short story and turning it into a play, the writer and myself as deviser realized simultaneously that a character we were having a problem with making fully rounded needed to be a woman rather than a man. “Bowker’s a woman!” we exclaimed in a jinx-you-owe-me-a-coke moment. We had an assumption that this character was a man because in the original short story, this character had been a man, a king, rich, powerful and spoiled and the assumption that this was who this person should be had stuck. However, in the contemporary reimagining of it, this character’s twists and motivations and psychology sit much more comfortably in the skin of a woman. Those Eureka! moments, complete with problem and solution together, are immensely satisfying. But then, there’s the endurance innovation.
One of the really cool parts of being an artist to me is that you can be aware of something, not know what it is, and still have it as a powerful part of your toolkit. Endurance innovation happens when you venture out into the unknown on the basis of a hunch. You’ve spotted a boundary. You know something is going on beyond that border, but for the life of you, you’ve no idea what it is. So you take your toolkit and you step out into the unknown. You have a hunch. You don’t know what you’ll find or how you’ll find it, but you’ve got your craft and tools and a new perspective to guide you.
About ten years ago, I developed a performance piece entitled The Journey. I knew there was something in the idea of stereotypes that was linked in a really interesting way to what stories were being told in the theatre, how they were told and quite a lot of aspects of acting. I also felt there was something going on with how stereotypes functioned in urban society. I perceived a boundary that influenced trends in form, content and process, so I set about developing an approach to moving towards, through, and beyond it. The initial effort developed into a new creative process, into an interactive show, and has both overtly and subtlety continued to influence my practice as an artist as well as that of some of the collaborators on the original piece. This type of innovation generates a plethora of new ways for our art to function, stretching these systems of communication in profound and enduring ways.
Turning the opportunity for innovation into action is fundamentally an act of questioning authority. This can be the authority of the industry, or a social, political, or scientific authority. The provocation to question can be something we as artists discover ourselves, or something that is revealed to us by a friend, colleague or by a global event. But the act of questioning through our art is up to us. As our work reflects our worldview, what we choose to do with our worldview—how rigidly or how flexibly we allow it to live through our work—is our responsibility as a community and as individuals.
As a dynamic system of communication, art is designed to adapt. Risk, failure, dead-ends: these things are the currency of artistic innovation. When we fail, we redirect, risk and discover, reach a dead-end and make a tunnel. Through our choices in adapting, deep truths are revealed and artistic innovation occurs. The system has something new to communicate.
My thinking is this: to innovate, be excited by the idea that you are hurdling towards a wall, look forward to being utterly wrong, push further than you think safe and let the ever shifting ground of art leap up to catch you mid-flight.
Rachel Parish is Artistic Director of Firehouse Creative Productions, creating new performance for the stage and public installation through collaborative processes. Based in both the UK and US, she works regularly as a freelance theatre director, dramaturg, community organizer, academic author, conference contributor, and artist in residence. Productions include All Change Festival and Soon Until Forever (Theatre503), Superjohn (UK tour), Caucasian Chalk Circle (Royal and Derngate), Arabian Nights (CityLit), Much Ado About Nothing (The Scoop), Elevator (New Diorama Theatre), Stella (Douglass Theatre, Southwark Playhouse), The Alchemist (Hoxton Hall), I Confess (international tour), and StoryStation (international exhibits).