Welcome to My Party!

Mar 21, 2019

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.

(Henry Miller)

During the late 1990s SITI Company regularly led two and three-week summer workshops in Los Angeles during which time we had the great pleasure of getting to know many members of the local theater community. Generally, SITI stayed at the Highland Gardens Hotel in Hollywood not far from the Magic Castle Hotel. Highland Gardens is a rather seedy consortium of buildings arranged around a liver shaped swimming pool, boasting that Janis Joplin died there of a heroin overdose in 1970 in room 105.

Each room at Highland Gardens has a little kitchenette, a bedroom and glass sliding doors giving out onto a little balcony terrace. With luck, we scored a room that faced inwards, towards the pool rather than outwards onto the busy street. One summer during our residency I enjoyed a room overlooking the pool and every evening after work I sat outside on the balcony. Lots of Los Angeles theater luminaries dropped by to visit me on my little balcony and we talked, laughed and drank late into each night.  I delighted in these encounters and came to think of each evening as if it were my own Public Access TV program. At the time, Public Access was a non-commercial system of broadcasting on television channels made available to independent or community groups. Of course, there were no cameras on my little balcony and also no audience, but I liked imagining that everyone who came to visit my balcony was a guest on my public access show.

My feeling about being the host of my own Public Access TV program was the opposite of the wide-ranging state of FOMO (“fear of missing out”) that now permeates our social-media-saturated contemporary culture. Rather than missing out, at Highland Gardens I felt that I was the center of the universe. Where I go, I thought, is what is happening. To cultivate this attitude, all that was required was a small shift of outlook and suddenly it was others, not me, who were missing out.

When preparing to direct a play, I often feel that everywhere I go messages are laid out just for me. Everything that happens to me, every conversation, every newspaper article, every book, and every encounter relates to my study and becomes fodder for my research. In the midst of this preparation, I feel as though I am an open vessel waiting to be filled with ideas, images, sound choices and insights.

While researching a play, I tune myself to the wavelength of the show that I am working on and then I move around the world, paying close attention to what is happening, noting everything that is helpful in my work. During this period of investigation, I am naturally curious because I feel that I am on a treasure hunt and that insight is just around the next corner. I take plenty of detours and often feel that I am caught up in an adventure. Curiosity leads.

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

(Albert Einstein)

The itch, the impulse to seek out new information and to make discoveries is a basic human attribute; a motivational desire that stems from a passion or an appetite for knowledge, information, understanding and new experiences. Not only is curiosity linked to exploratory behavior, but it is also related to the experience of reward. When one’s curiosity has been aroused, the reward system is activated. Positive emotions are ignited by discovering new information. This hunger for information, for insight, is a physiological need in both humans and in many animals and is related neurologically to the same synaptic activity as a hunger for food. 

A study, published in Neuron magazine, reported that as we become curious, our brain’s chemistry changes and this, in turn, helps us to retain information and to even increase our ability to learn as well as to remember. MRIs used in these studies show that when curious, activity in the hippocampus, which is the area that is involved in the creation of memories, surges. When this circuit is activated, the brain releases dopamine, which instigates a natural high. The dopamine plays a role in enhancing the connections between cells that are involved in learning. When my curiosity has been piqued, the area of my brain that regulates pleasure and reward lights up. The part of the brain that energizes me to go out and seek rewards is the same as when I am curious.

When working towards a new production, a natural curiosity arises in me that generates a powerful heat that, in turn, influences the shape and scope of the project. Curiosity is a key ingredient in learning. It leads to knowledge but also to the ability to make connections among various pieces of information. It forces me to seek out novelty and examine it and test it and find out what it is. Interest and an eagerness to make discoveries guides me from one place to another. But I want to learn how to apply this natural curiosity, interest and heat to my daily life. 

In order be present and at the center of my own party, I know that I have to open up and let the game come to me. The ability to cultivate both curiosity and interest is the key to a rich life. But I know that in order to be successful in this endeavor, I must get out of my own way. When experiencing doubt, frustration, impatience or uncertainty, I tell myself to get curious. When I try too hard or want too much, I miss out. “Be like water,” said Bruce Lee, who continues, “You put water into the cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle … be water, my friend.” Inspired by Lee’s instruction, I try to be present and remember that ultimately it is not me who makes anything happen. Water seeks out its own level. Without trying too hard, I want to take off the filter and open wider to the world. I want to accept what is and experience it directly and then see what happens. 

To cultivate curiosity, I start by noting my own inner state and the sensations that I am experiencing from moment to moment. Then I look at the world around me and get inquisitive about what can be found there. I start to notice details. And then something usually starts to happen. I find that curiosity produces a warmth that can cut through doubt, resentment, assumption, tiredness, regret, boredom and impatience. Here is what I try to remember:

  1. Practice maintaining an open mind.
  2. Don’t take anything for granted.
  3. Be willing to ask dumb questions.
  4. Don’t label anything as boring.
  5. Recognize the joy in learning.
  6. Make meaningful connections with others.
  7. Read widely and follow your interests.

A pervasive cultural anxiety about being too curious is found both in age-old sayings and in myths. “Curiosity killed the cat,” is an adage that grew out of the attempt to stop people from asking unwanted questions. Myths more specifically point out the danger of too much curiosity. Pandora is warned not to open the box, but curiosity gets the better of her. She opens it and the ills of the world are released. Adam and Eve are told not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but they are goaded to eat the apple by the snake. All of humankind seems to pay for their curiosity. It has been suggested that too much curiosity leads to hubris. Of course, I know that some restraint is required with curiosity to prevent the seeking of knowledge that would be dangerous to oneself and to others. But the trepidation is not worth the cost of repressing curiosity.

When I imagine that I am the host of my own Cable Access TV program, I feel momentarily that I am at the center of the universe. But concurrently I also understand that, in fact, there is no center of the universe. There is only the particular universe of which I am the center, and the universe of which you are the center and so on. And we are all profoundly entangled. There is no place where I can stand idly by while someone else stands at the center. We make space for one another. I am inexorably interconnected to the infinite numbers of parallel universes. Welcome to my party!