a Carpenter or a Gardener; a Devil or a Cook

Apr 28, 2017

The expression “the medium is the message,” coined by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, meant that the technology that we use embeds itself in any message that we receive. Later, feeling that the original phrase had become a cliché, McLuhan changed his tact and published a book entitled “The Medium is the Massage”.  He adopted the term “massage” referring to the effect that each medium has upon the human sensory system. We are literally massaged by our interactions with media, any kind of media.

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.

In a similar sense, I work hard to create art, but in the end it is the art that recreates me. I am massaged and altered by the projects that I engage in.  I am transformed by the interactions and by the obstacles that I confront in the adventure of moving forwards.  I am not an island that lies unchanged in a static sea. The people with whom I collaborate and the content with which I engage, transform me. In order to succeed on any project, I must extend what I assume are the boundaries of my “self” to incorporate the inclinations, ideas and even personas of others.

I am sure that I am not alone in the feeling that when working on a project every interaction, every experience in daily life seems to relate to the subject being contemplated and becomes fodder for the next step in the creative process.  Theater making is an act of cultivation, of allowing oneself to be influenced and bent by the events, by the very field in which one is standing.

Developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik’s new book The Gardener and the Carpenter is a meditation upon parenting in which she proposes two discrete approaches to raising children. In her estimation, parents can be either carpenters or they can be gardeners.  A carpenter harbors a preconception about how a child should turn out and thereby carefully crafts the child’s way into and through the world. The gardener on the other hand celebrates and cultivates the unexpected, the messy and the unpredictable.

Perhaps it is instructive to extend the metaphor of being a gardener or being a carpenter to the development of new work for the stage.  In the process of preparing and staging a production I lean towards being a gardener. I often wish that I were a carpenter because it would be lovely to feel that I know what I am doing and how to go after it, but in the end, I am a gardener.

Let me state at the outset that I am not an actual gardener in the horticultural sense.  Although I know and admire many real gardeners and have enjoyed the fruits of their labors, I have neither the talent nor the proclivity to grow plants or vegetables myself. Nevertheless I shall extend the metaphor of making theater as gardening in order to unearth useful ideas about the creative process.

In both Old English and Old High German, the word garden refers to an enclosure, a compound or a protected space. According to most gardeners, preparing the garden is the key to its success.  The soil has to be rich and good.  It is vital to make the most of the space that you have. Good tools are necessary.  I looked through various books and manuals written by master gardeners and found that their suggestions and advice about effective gardening is highly applicable to the creation of new work for the theater.  Here are some of the salient bits:

Accept that you are not in control and be comfortable when things are not in your control.
Do not be afraid to get down in the dirt and fertilizer.
You need rich soil.
You need to prioritize.
Timing is of the essence.
You have to have a vision of how it might develop
You have to plant seeds carefully
You have to have patience
It is helpful not to be alone
You have to be thankful for what emerges
You have to be able to let things go.
You have to work with love for nature.
You have to build a fence around your garden.
A garden needs constant tending and also patience.
Do not fight nature, rather, go with the flow.
Provide drainage.
Learning how to prune
Bend with the wind and the weather. Be supple.
The universe does not care what you want.
You are not in control.
Embrace the accidents of Mother Nature.
Take the long view but also take care of the details.
Have a plan, but adjust.

Effective gardening in the rehearsal room is about being engaged and alive on many levels simultaneously: physically, intellectually, intuitively, visually, imaginatively, viscerally and musically.  I must remain curious, trust in the mysterious, believe in serendipity, apply my skill and never stop wondering.  I have learned to look at what unfolds before me in a conditional way, aware and open to the unexpected and even the possibility of failure. It is key is to understand that my perspective is merely one among alternative views. I must embrace uncertainty because when I allow myself to become uncertain and unsure, everything becomes more interesting and I notice more, like I do when traveling to an unfamiliar place.

In a recent conversation at Columbia University, Canadian theater-maker Robert Lepage suggested that a director in rehearsal is either a devil or a cook. As much as he would like to be a devil, Lepage admitted that he is primarily, in fact, a cook.  For him, the process of creation requires spending time in his studio with key collaborators, mixing ingredients together, being patient and curious and waiting for the alchemy to happen.  His approach to new work, he claims, is not about ideas or concepts or anything that can be argued about. “We never start with an intellectual concept. We start with an impression on the theme, a feeling.”  The eventual structure of any given production emanates from this willful playfulness.

I am not a devil director either and, like Lepage, I feel more like a cook-in-process. I differ from Lepage in that I revel in and am inspired by intellectual, scientific, historical or sociological ideas and lean into them in the launch and development of each project.  But I would like to pirate Lepage’s insistence upon intentional play over an extended period of time.  In order to make prolonged play possible, I know that it is necessary to be exceptionally strategic about providing the proper circumstances for a lengthy development process.  One must consciously cultivate a process in which new work can be nurtured over time.

Among the arts presenters who enthusiastically commission and present his new work, Lepage has the reputation of putting unfinished work on the stage in front of their audiences. I asked Lepage how he feels about this. “Oh yes!” he responded. “You have to bring your audience into the writing process.  Opening night is not a guillotine.”  He continued, “In Shakespearean times the company continued to change lines and staging while the show was running. The show will not be as rich and nuanced as when it goes before the meat grinder of public digestion.”

I believe that I share with other members of SITI Company a horror at the notion of presenting work to an audience before it is ready. But, inspired by Lepage’s example, I would like to develop the courage to consciously and strategically allow audiences into the development process of a play earlier so that they may help to co-write the production. This “co-writing” is not about an audience literally giving notes to the artists after a performance, but rather allows the audience’s interaction with the performers in the heat of a performance to influence and guide the creative team to a greater understanding about what to add, what to leave out, how timing works and how to make the production more legible for future audiences.

Both of the metaphors of gardening and cooking suggest that we live in a rich community of knowledge and the key to our intelligence lies in the people and the opportunities around us. We constantly draw upon information and expertise stored outside of our own heads.  We can receive useful information from our own bodies, our environment, from our audiences and the communities with which we interact.