Fleeing The Tiger Is No Time To Get Creative

There was a recent series of posts about creativity and children on the Creativity Post website that have made some concepts gel for me.

In September Dr. Peter Gray made a post about declining creativity scores in school aged children. In part he blames an education system which increasingly focuses on the concept that solutions are either right or wrong rather than providing free time to experiment and play. Given the research he cites, parents that over schedule their kids’ time also share some of the blame.

As much as we in the arts tout the benefits of creativity, you may be surprised to learn how important it is to success in life and how significant the decline is:

According to Kim’s analyses, the scores on these tests [Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT)] at all grade levels began to decline somewhere between 1984 and 1990 and have continued to decline ever since. The drops in scores are highly significant statistically and in some cases very large….

…but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984. Yikes.


Indeed, the TTCT seems to be the best predictor of lifetime achievement that has yet been invented. It is a better predictor than IQ, high-school grades, or peer judgments of who will achieve the most.

In a post this month, Gray continues on this theme discussing how important it is to allow a child to create in a non-judgmental environment. He cites some interesting research on the impact of judgement in home environments on the creative development of children.

My ah-ha! moment came after Gray discusses how people will generate a more creative product if they don’t know their work will be evaluated. People tend to edit themselves in order to please the evaluator and out of fear and anxiety about being judged. (my emphasis)

“If a tiger is chasing you, your best bet is to use well-learned or habitual ways of escaping from the tiger, not to dream up new creative ways of doing so. Creative ways always run the risk of failure, so we are biologically constructed to cut creativity off when failure has serious consequences.”

Many in the arts, myself included, have written about how important it is for arts organizations to embrace the risk of possible failure by experimenting with new approaches to the creation of art, audience/visitor experience, marketing, pricing, etc.

In the context of Gray’s observation, it isn’t that arts organizations are simply risk averse about new experience the way kids are worried about the first day of school or audiences are anxious about attending their first classical music concert.

Rather the fear engendered by financial consequences evokes a hard wired primal fight/flight reaction that actually shuts down our ability to think creativity.

The idea that this situation is biological was as illuminating to me as Neill Archer Roan’s observation a few years ago that emotional satisfaction engendered a diminished sense of responsibility for self-/professional development in arts professionals.

I think it is helpful for arts organizations to be aware the fear of experimentation in the face of perceived threats is not only probably irrational, but also a genuinely visceral reaction. Knowing this, they can endeavor to create a decision making environment where the influence and presence of these threats are diminished.

Likewise, it is important for arts organizations to know these things when providing and advocating for arts education. Creativity is cultivated by arts instruction that provides opportunity for wholly free expression alongside direction and evaluation.

Fear of The Black Hat

I was intrigued last month by a post on the ArtsFWD website made by Liz Dreyer about Edward DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats group discussion and thinking process.

My first gut reaction that made this approach appeal to me was that it forces everyone in a discussion to act as a devil’s advocate and point out the problems with an idea. In many conversations either no one wants to appear pessimistic or there is that one guy who seems to revel in the role. With the Six Thinking Hats, everyone has to engage in that this type of thinking so that it isn’t avoided, nor is any individual resented for adopting that position.

In addition to taking a judgmental approach, Six Thinking Hats also requires the group to explore in turn: the straight facts of the situation; speak optimistically seeking the positive benefits; discuss feelings and hunches and creatively explore alternatives and new ideas. The whole process is bracketed by a “meta-thinking” hat that sets the rules about how the thinking will be done and evaluates the process when it is over.

Dreyer does a pretty good job of outlining how the group at EMCArts explored the Six Thinking Hats process so I don’t want to reiterate all the details.

As I mentioned, I liked that the process made everyone move between the different perspectives together which helps prevent a strong personality from dominating a conversation and consistently redirecting it toward their personal bias. I also suspect that participation would help each individual member strengthen their personal decision making abilities through practice and the example of others. If a person didn’t feel really confident about thinking creatively or trusting their hunches, contributing to a discussion where this type of thinking wasn’t suppressed and observing others more skilled at this type of thinking could help that person develop themselves.

If you are considering using this approach in meetings, I would suggest doing additional research on how to use it. Each hat isn’t used in equal measure. Some of the additional research I have done specifies that the Red Hat which embodies intuition and hunches only be used for 30 seconds in order to ensure the response is spontaneous and free of internal censoring (“Oh that is a stupid idea…”) There is also a warning, echoed by Dreyer’s post, not to let the critical devil’s advocate Black Hat get overused.

On the other hand, DeBono’s critics say that his approach emphasizes creativity and qualitative thinking rather than testing if empirical data actually bears the ideas out.

That said, if you are doing any grant writing at all in support of your programs you are probably being asked to provide enough empirical data to keep you grounded.


By the way, the title of this post was pulled from the hilarious 90s hip-hop mockumentary, Fear of A Black Hat.  Entirely unrelated to the subject of the post but worth checking out, especially if you grew up in 1980s and 90s because you will recognize a lot of the groups they are making fun of.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqp-aSPqQYc]

Go To The Theatre, Smell Like A Man!

A little fun speculative post today.

It has been widely recognized that women generally initiate the decision to attend an arts and cultural event. Now given that the vast majority of playwrights, composers, visual artists, choreographers, etc have been Caucasian males and most audiences are comprised of Caucasians, I wonder what it is in their work that seems to speak to Caucasian women more than any other group.

As much as you can point out that it is no longer true that Caucasian male creative artists are  responsible for as large a percentage of creative output as they once were, I can link to tons of blog posts and articles that note that the ratio is still too large. I am sure there will be many who will suggest that an even larger number of women would attend if the creative content was actually geared to them.

So I ask, albeit with a little tongue in cheek, how have Caucasian male artists failed Caucasian male audiences and how can we get those men back?

This is where I want to play my speculative little game. I am not going to advocate for more White male centric art. I think its good that what is out there appeals to a wider spectrum of the community. Given that people have shown the capacity to identify with art created by those who are unlike them and that doesn’t speak directly to their experiences, I think there is room for more to be created by artists of diverse backgrounds.

But in fact, I am not going to really argue directly for artistic content at all but rather suggest maybe we need to think about how the experience is positioned.

Earlier this month, Smithsonian.com had a piece about how the United States was sold on using deodorant. It an interesting story about how deodorants and antiperspirants were formulated and ultimately advertised to the American people by playing on their insecurities about smelling bad.

However, the earliest efforts were aimed at women which resulted in deodorant use being regarded as feminine. A man was supposed to possess a manly odor!

But with half the population not buying the toiletries, manufacturers felt they were missing out on untapped potential. Early attempts were made to get women to buy deodorant for their husbands but it was still largely seen as a female product.

Comments in a 1928 survey read:

““I consider a body deodorant for masculine use to be sissified,” notes one responder. “I like to rub my body in pure grain alcohol after a bath but do not do so regularly,” asserts another.”

Now if rubbing your whole body with pure grain alcohol isn’t manly, I don’t know what is. I feel less of a man for only splashing it on my face after shaving.

Later attempts were aimed at male insecurity as well.

In the Great Depression of the 1930s men were worried about losing their job. Advertisements focused on the embarrassment of being stinky in the office, and how unprofessional grooming could foil your career, she says.

“The Depression shifted the roles of men,” Casteel says. “Men who had been farmers or laborers had lost their masculinity by losing their jobs. Top Flite offered a way to become masculine instantly—or so the advertisement said.” To do so, the products had to distance themselves from their origins as a female toiletry.

For example, Sea-Forth, a deodorant sold in ceramic whiskey jugs starting in the 1940s, “because the company owner Alfred McKelvy said he ‘couldn’t think of anything more manly than whiskey,’” Casteel says.

At this juncture, I think it is pretty much a moral imperative that I insert the following:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owGykVbfgUE&w=560&h=315]


I think if the arts and culture industry is going to take its cues from deodorant advertisers, (and why wouldn’t you?), it is going to need to move beyond depending on women buying tickets for husbands and boyfriends and reframe the experience in some way.

While I am not necessarily above using someone’s insecurities to motivate them into action, I think I would rather take a more constructive approach to making men believe initiating a trip to an arts and cultural event is socially acceptable and perhaps even expected.

Obviously, the arts and culture industry needs to replace the word “men” in the previous sentence with other segments of their community in an effort to serve a greater portion of their potential audience.

And while we no longer get our deodorant packaged in whiskey jugs, (pity), reformulating and packaging the product for wider audience segments is still going to be required. Can’t get away selling the same old stuff.

While it is a lot of fun equating theatre and deodorant, I have to confess I don’t really have a lot of ideas in regard to what an effective approach might be. Anyone have any thoughts?

Info You Can Use: Various Things Arts Orgs Are Doing To Connect

This past weekend the students held their annual fund raiser for the Fall Mainstage production in our Lab Theatre. The event is entirely student generated and produced. Basically my only involvement over the summer is to unlock the door for them. Our technical director ensures nothing will burst into flames and everything is generally safe, but the work is largely done by the students.

I am very proud of the student who has essentially acted as the producer for the last 4 years because he keeps upping his game every year. Last Spring a new instructor introduced him to a different approach to developing a show and to the credit of all the students, they dedicated themselves to following the approach even though it meant a longer, more involved rehearsal process.

A fair segment of the audience tends to be students and for many of them, this is their first experience in a theatre of any kind. In some respects, it is a great introduction for them because it provides a less orthodox attendance experience and reveals the potential inherent in live performance. (Speaking of which, check out this baby by Great Canadian Theatre Company) On the other hand, it can make a more orthodox attendance experience seem all the more boring and disappointing by comparison.

Typically the entrance, stairway and hall to the lab theatre are heavily decorated. A woman in front of me on the ticket line who takes dance classes across the hall from theatre wondered aloud where the dance studios went. The performers also do a pre-show where they move about interacting with other performers and the audience members according to the backstory of their particular character.

My aim is to try to infuse a little more interesting and interactive experience to our mainstage space. There the expectations and context of the space creates a wholly different environment. We have added some new experiences and are continuing to think of others.

So in that vein, I wanted to point out some interesting programs I have been reading about lately that aim to change the experiences people have at arts and cultural events.

A Wall Street Journal this week had a story about silent disco parties that are being held at zoos in England and the US. It is something of an after hours party at the zoo where people are given headphone receivers. Attendees can dance to the same music without actually disturbing the animals with loud noise (though since many dress up as animals, it may make some of the predators hungry for a midnight snack as they flail silently about).

Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History seems to be so dedicated to providing participatory experiences in her museum, she even has opportunities in her restrooms. Reading her blog, Museum 2.0 provides a trove of great ideas and reflections on how they worked.

Back in May, ArtsFwd featured a number of audio postcards from arts organizations around Cleveland. I confess I only recently got around to listening to them after having bookmarked it all those months ago but I am glad I did. There are some great stories being told by the arts leaders in Cleveland. One related to this topic that caught my attention was told about the Great Lakes Theater.

The artistic and executive directors talks about how they designed the Hanna Theater to facilitate social interaction between the audience and performers. The bar is in the seating area and they have different seating areas- traditional seating along with loose club chairs and lounge and bar seating.

The theatre is open 90 minutes before the show and stays open until up to 90 minutes after to provide a place for people to gather and interact rather than simply showing up a half hour in advance, watching and leaving.

A few years ago, I wrote about Alan Brown talking about Gen Y’s vision of an ideal performance venue:

He said he asked them to describe what they would envision as a perfect jazz club. They said it would be a coffee house during the day but a bar at night with a separate room where those who wanted to be full immersed in the music could go. However, there would also be an anteroom where people could talk with friends and still listen to the music and still another anteroom where people could interact with friends more and listen less.

Though this sort of arrangement is highly unlikely, Great Lakes Theater seems to get pretty close. I am curious to know if anyone has attended at the Hanna Theater and what the experience is like. There aren’t a lot of review on Yelp that I have seen. My biggest fear is that someone would knock over their glass at the bar during a highly dramatic scene or there would be some other disturbing occurrence.