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Who is Really Creative – The Performer or the Writer, Composer, Choreographer?
Performers are often viewed as interpreters. They give expression to the works of writers, composers or choreographers. Their task is to remain faithful to the creative artists who generate performance works. They can be replaced and someone else can perform the original work. Consequently, many researchers, along with members of the general public, do not include performers when they study or reflect on creative output.
The reality is that the majority of performers draw from their own creative resources to give expression to the script, score, or dance. Performers creatively work in unique ways. They spend extended periods of time working alone enhancing their technical skills, plus they interact within group settings to give life to the performance work. The nature of their creative process is one that is both individually and collectively explored. Each member of the performance group operates within a distributed field of creativity. For example, actors respond to other actors, directors, and designers, as well as the writer. Musicians interact with other musicians, a conductor, and the composer’s score. Dancers explore and replicate the movement vocabulary of the choreographer while coordinating the demands of spatial and musical timing of other dancers who are also performing the work.
Improvisation, such as that heard when listening to a jazz ensemble or watching a comedy improv group, are prime examples of distributed creativity. According to Keith Sawyer, distributed creativity is both the process and the product of improvisation. Improvisational performers collectively create new works spontaneously during performances. Their audiences are actually part of the distributed creative process. Each individual influences the quality of the improvisational work and all are actively listening and responding to the work as it emerges. The effect is immediate and all who are present appreciate these creative moments. They recognize the aesthetic value of the creative experience, one that is filled with receptivity and expressivity.
While performing scripted, scored or choreographed works, performers also bring their own creative voice and sensibility to the performance. This process is readily evident when cover singers re-interpret songs originally created by another singer. Audiences appreciate the personal approach of each singer, and many enthusiasts actively debate the deficits and virtues of different recording artists. Likewise, different orchestras interpret the works of composers and present them in their own unique style; in fact, world-class orchestras are typically recognized by the quality of the sound they produce. Likewise conductors tour the world to share their own personal interpretations of a work. These “interpretations” are much more than replications. They are creative acts that meet the traditional definitions of creativity.
Although creativity researchers still debate the definition of creativity, some consensus does exist. The two accepted key criteria to determine creativity are novelty (originality) and usefulness (or effectiveness). Fundamentally, most researchers regard novelty as the critical predictor of creativity. One of the fundamental problems with evaluating a product as novel is the limitation of temporality. What may be considered novel during one historical era can be viewed as mundane and banal later. For example, if you ask today’s adolescents about the level of creativity manifested by the Beatles, many would not even know who they were, and if they did know them, they would consider the Beatles as old-fashioned. The once novel and effective songs produced by the Beatles may no longer be viewed as useful or original. Likewise, during Bizet’s lifetime, Carmen was regarded as a categorical failure. That is no longer the case. Today this opera is performed around the world and the music is considered masterful.
Two other factors are frequently included when determining whether something is creative. The first is a sense of authenticity and the second is aesthetic appeal. These factors are much more difficult to empirically evaluate. They are deeply influenced by the subjectivity of the viewer. For example, returning to the Beatles or Carmen, authenticity and aesthetic appeal may be more readily applied across time. One could easily argue that authenticity and aesthetic appeal existed in the original Beatle’s songs or Bizet’s opera. These two factors are equally important when considering the creative abilities of performing artists. Certainly, despite statements to the contrary by Donald Trump, Meryl Streep can be regarded as highly creative and not an “over-rated” actress. She is deeply authentic and her aesthetic appeal is rooted within the depth of her character portrayal. Her creativity is consistently recognized by her fellow performing artists, and by the general public.
Consensual assessment, a process that involves experts determining whether something is creative, is typically practiced in the performing arts. Teachers, judges, talent agents, artistic directors, producers, and critics all evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a performer. They consciously or unconsciously apply the four components of creativity: novelty (originality), usefulness (purpose), authenticity, and aesthetic appeal. Unfortunately, the last criteria, aesthetic appeal, may pose particular challenges for many performers, especially given the public appetite for beauty equaling thinness in females and muscularity and strength in males. Performers are often objectified and held to rigorous aesthetic standards of beauty. The expert consensual assessment is frequently colored by these stereotyped values of aesthetic beauty and less by the key creative factor of novelty. Sadly, many highly creative performing artists may not achieve critical acclaim simply because they do not satisfy the aesthetic values of their era.
Researchers also explore whether creativity should be considered domain-specific or domain-general. For example, the creative skills of a musician are domain-specific when compared to the domain-specific skills required of a dancer. Likewise, the playing of a particular instrument further discriminates domain-specific skills, as does the demands of different dance styles such as ballet or hip-hop dancing. On the other hand, domain-general creativity encompasses the creative process of the performing artists and not just the domain-specific skills. Performing arts is fundamentally a physical art form. The creative authenticity and aesthetic is conveyed via movement. All performers must embody their creative expression, a fact that supports domain-general creativity. Other domain-general factors include cognitive and emotional flexibility, problem-solving skills, divergent and convergent cognitive processing, and sensorimotor “intelligence”. Certainly, on the surface, performing artists may differ as a group when compared to creative figures in other fields such as visual artists, poets, or architects; however, the major requirements of creativity in the performing arts is shared across creative fields. In short, performers have domain-specific skills but they are creative in very similar ways as other creative people. Likewise, they may be constrained by the script or score to be performed, but the creative freedom in how the work is to be expressed enables performers to be recognized as original artists in their own right.
The process of preparing for a performance inevitably involves engagement in the creative process. The Geneplore Model of creativity enumerates a bi-phasic process of creativity. The generative phase involves memory retrieval, mental synthesis of ideas and transformation of ideas that influence the generation of something novel. The exploratory phase allows performers to collaboratively interact with other performers, artists and their audience. This exploratory phase is essential for the emergence of an original and authentic performance. The performers and audience all recognize when the performance is alive and compelling. Like all creative individuals, most performers recognize when they succeed or fail. Performers constantly have the opportunity to engage in this bi-phasic creative process (generative and exploratory). When they withdraw from this creative process then it can be stated that they are performing as mere technicians. Even when their technical skills are regarded as prodigious, technical accomplishment is only one factor involved in the depth and nuance of creative expressivity. Creativity resides in the performer’s embodied expression of authenticity, aesthetic appeal, and originality.
Is the performing artist a useful creative “product”? They may definitely be creative people and yet they are also the creative product that is readily identified and marketed as useful or effective. If the “product” is measured by the contribution to the Gross Domestic Product, then it can be argued that performing artists support one of the major sources of revenue in the United States. According to the 2015 National Endowment of the Arts statistics, more people attended or viewed a performing arts event compared to viewing or attending a professional sports event. Lastly, a substantial percentage of the population participates in the performing arts, whether as a student, an amateur or a professional. Are all who participate creative? Perhaps not at an eminent level but each has the opportunity to engage in the creative process of physically expressing something that has an aesthetic appeal, authenticity, novelty and effectiveness.
The performing artist has the potential to be deemed both a creative person and a creative product. Performers are dependent on the creative work of writers, composers and choreographers. Likewise, the writers, composes and choreographers are deeply dependent on the creative abilities of performers, along with the design team that helps bring their work to the public. Creativity, in the performing arts, results via a process of collaboration. It is distributed amongst many talented people who give life to works through embodied expression.
The author of this article is Paula Thomson, Professor, Co-Director of the Performance Psychophysiology Laboratory at California State University, Nortrhidge, Clinical Psychologist, and a freelance choreographer. Together with co-author and co-director S. Victoria Jaque, their book, Creativity and the Performing Artist: Behind the Mask, examines the performing artist as both the creative person and the creative product. The book focuses particularly on the nature of creativity and the psychological, physical, and social challenges that performers face.
In this chapter, the reader is introduced to the major performing arts domains. Topics include; (1) National Endowment for the Arts statistics, (2) studies on domain-specific and domain-general criteria, (3) interpreters and intermediaries who bring the performance product to the market, (4) dance, (5) media arts, (6) music, (7) opera, (8) theatre, (9) circus arts, (10) performance art.
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