Last week I landed in San Diego to start my assistantship at The Old Globe. As I traveled down the California freeways to pick up my rental car, I couldn't believe how beautiful everything was. It was like I landed inside a postcard. I actually asked someone, "how does anyone get any work done here?"
Productivity is a funny word when it comes to creating art. We can’t force inspiration. It’s not something we can access on demand. But we can put ourselves in the ideal circumstances to tease out that inspiration.
Many artists find inspiration in nature. In fact, last month the Drama League took all the Fall Directing Fellows to the Berkshires for a retreat. My fellow Fellows and I spent four days “off the grid” taking in the scenery, enjoying home-cooked meals, and working on scenes from John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore with eight ridiculously talented actors. I think we all did some great work while we were there, but I can’t say that I felt inspired.
I wondered whether something was wrong with me. How could I not feel inspired in such an idyllic setting (see photo above), surrounded by nothing but nature and talent?
In the past I’ve used nature to inspire my students. This summer I taught Viewpoints to high school seniors at the Cherubs program at Northwestern University. One of the goals of Viewpoints is to get actors to respond to their environment with their bodies without thinking too much. It gets actors out of their heads, so that acting can be a visceral experience, rather than an intellectual one. I like to say it helps actors regress and return to their childhood, when everything piqued their curiosity.
When some of my students struggled with this, I decided to take them outside to have class in a park by Lake Michigan. And what a difference that made! Without too much prompting from me, they created a 30-minute improvised physical theatre piece that surprised and astonished me with every turn. Responding to their natural surroundings was easy. Nature freed them. So why couldn’t it free me?
When I got back from the retreat, I called one of my best friends to chat, and I shared my frustration with her. She reminded me that nature has never inspired me as much as pop culture has. It's true I do feel more productive when I have lots of things competing for my attention. I used to do my homework with multiple tabs open in my browser, a Spotify playlist playing on my phone, and a muted television on in the background. Of course some tasks require my complete concentration, but for the most part, I don’t know what to do with myself when I have peace and quiet.
The more I thought about it, the more sense this made. Lately I’ve felt a much stronger connection to groups like Elevator Repair Service and Gob Squad, companies who embrace, celebrate, satirize, and tear down popular culture. And I mean both the good stuff, like great works of literature, and the bad stuff, like reality television. They ask their audiences to pay attention to a lot of things at once.
So the next time I want to turn my brain off, I'll go somewhere where I have no cell phone reception. I’ll find a cabin in the Poconos or rent a beach house on the Outer Banks or take myself to the Grand Canyon. But when I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll probably turn on my television.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.