Some Insights into the Techniques of Creative Leadership in the Theatre Arts

By Piers Ibbotson.

THE THEATRE has two thousand years of practical experience of people working together, in creative groups, to create and deliver complex projects to tight budgets and immovable deadlines. And its raw material is human life; conflicts, relationships, stories of ambition and hubris. The potential for insight in many fields is great; insight into communication, creativity, project management, innovation, and human relations. What follows is a close look at one aspect of theatre practise; the role of the director. How do directors lead their team of actors, their ensemble, and get the results the director wants, without crushing the creativity and enthusiasm of the team?

The two most inspiring theatre directors I worked with as an actor had one thing in common - an intensity of concentration. They neither of them said much, but they possessed a powerful aura of focused concentration. It was this sense of being rigorously observed that made them stimulating. You felt that they were not necessarily judging or even supporting you. Their gaze was dispassionate and you knew that behind it was an intense intellect, studying what you did and vigilant for genius, for your genius, not theirs. They would not fail to notice when you succeeded in something and they were merely indifferent to your failures. They expected failure and were not bothered by it. They were not going to blame you, or be depressed by your lack of success. They were just going to sit there and watch intently for sparks of life to be encouraged. They were the perfect audience of one. They were giving you their complete undivided attention.

There was an expectation implicit in the behaviour of these directors, a sense that they were looking for something rare, that one might well not be able to find easily. It was not that they had the answers, but you trusted that they were after something very special from you, even if neither you, nor they, could describe exactly what it was. And you also believed that by virtue of having cast you in the role, they believed you had a good chance of finding it. It was not, on the face of it, a power thing, though of course the parental analogy is very strong and in most actor/director relationships there is a very strong whiff of parent/child dynamics. But there is lot in here to do with setting and maintaining boundaries. Not just of setting and maintaining safe boundaries in which to play and explore, but of expectation.

When they spotted something, they supported and encouraged. When you were searching they let you wander about, but when you were stuck, no longer flowing with ideas, they would assist, either with specific technical input, or with creative challenges – “What if?” questions:

"What if you are trying to get her to kiss you when you say that line?

"What if we imagine this scene is outside, and you can't hear each other for the noise of the rain?"

"What if the servants are outside the door and trying to overhear what you are saying to each other?"

Some of these suggestions you knew might have been close to the director's desire for the final interpretation of the scene, but you always had a sense that they were given in the spirit of provisional offerings to be explored, rather than instructions for how to do the scene.

Constraints of any sort will always stimulate creativity in people, in a play, the actors will be obliged to explore and use different physical and emotional tools to pursue the objectives of their characters and this will inevitably broaden the range of interpretations and discoveries will be made. The ability to frame creative constraints within which the team must work is the most important technique a leader has if they are to stimulate and give direction to the creativity of others.

There is a strong element of education in directing in this way - leading stuff out from the actors for the director to study and select from. But the Creative Leader as "teacher" needs to be looked at. With good directors (unlike teachers) there is always the tacit admission that the director does not know the answer. In art, of course, there is no right and wrong, there are only subjective perceptions. "It feels true"; "it looks beautiful to me". Or in the end; "It's my show and I like it like this.” The Director is leading and instructing and has abundant knowledge of the problem; but the best ones are honest about not being in possession of the details of the solution. They are more or less saying; "I believe passionately it should be like this for these reasons and I want you, the actors, to help me find a way of doing this and we'll see if I'm right." The very best are always humble about this, however, and are always ready to shift, change and adapt their vision as stuff emerges from the ensemble as rehearsal progresses. Good directors shape the project by setting the constraints within which the actors do their creative work.

It is leading with a "misty vision" rather than a clear one, a passionately held but necessarily fragmentary vision of the final goal. The clarity comes from the unfolding creative efforts of the team as they grapple with the constraints of the project.  Describing and setting the constraints is the means by which the leader directs the enterprise. The creative leader both holds the fragmentary, misty vision in their head while at the same time watching for and capturing the clarifications that emerge as the team works on. Certain elements are given and become the constraints that define the activities of the work. The director will know the “how” of some things and the “what” of others but he will not be in possession of the final form of the piece. That is to be found together.

This process is fundamental to creativity in the arts just as it is in science. Artists often describe a sense of revealing the finished work, as if it already existed but was hidden from them and their task has been somehow to find it.  It is interesting that people's response to a new idea or a radical innovation is usually; “Of course! It's obvious!” as if the new is always enfolded somehow in the infinitely complex present. Great new ideas have a strange familiarity. De Novo creativity is a myth. Only God can do that, everything we can create is emergent from what is here now. How is this done in the theatre?

What is the Nature of Creative Constraints?

If you say to a group of actors “I want you to improvise a scene of a day in the life of one of you. Getting up, going to work etc.,” they will set to and come up with something. It will usually be utterly banal. If you say “I want you to improvise a scene of a day in the life of one of you….. and you are not allowed to use any props or furniture - you have to use your own bodies to make all the furniture or objects you need to tell the story...,"  you will get a much more creative and original result. Being denied the use of the obvious will stimulate them. But the constraint of no furniture or props is framed so as to contain a specific creative challenge about how to proceed.

A good constraint needs to be very carefully worked out. Some things will only inhibit and some things are too open.

If you say, "Here are some bits and pieces of rope and sticks and canvas. I want you to improvise a scene using them..,” they may come up with something exciting. They will find it hard, and may or may not have a stimulating adventure.

If you give the same materials and say: "I want you to use these materials and your own bodies and voices to make an elephant that dances." They will be more likely to have a stimulating experience and come up with something remarkable.

Creative constraints imply a direction, a hope for the investigation, but do not specify the means or, most importantly, the specific outcomes. They are also tight enough to constitute a strong challenge; they are not easy or clear paths. Necessity is the mother of invention, without being needy, without being, in some sense, deprived, we are not creative. But this is not a conventional sense of deprivation it is a very specific removal of specific sorts of things that will encourage creativity. It is not, emphatically not, a general deprivation. If you deprive actors of space and time in which to rehearse, you will stimulate them, but the work will always be better if they have enough of these. Deprive actors of money for set and costumes and it may be a creative stimulus. It is a delicate and far from obvious business.

If I say; "Here is some paper and a whole range of coloured paints and a brush… Paint me a picture of a rainbow." - What would you do?

If I say; "Here is some black ink and some paper. Use them to make an image of a rainbow.”  What would you do?

The second example above is framed with a particular result in my mind that I would hope to see; that of using the paper to separate out the colours of the ink by chromatography. Why I would want that doesn't matter, I have a vague notion it might be possible and could yield an interesting result. People might come up with utterly other things, they may never think of that. The use of the word 'image' and the absence of reference to 'brushes' is deliberate, to stimulate more open or inventive solutions to the task.

The objective in each case above is the same. The people know exactly what a rainbow is accepted to be. The constraints are varied to provoke them into re-examining the proposition "rainbow" and figuring out other paths to expressing it.  The same could be said of examining the proposition “Hamlet" or "Beyond Petroleum" or “Excellent Service in the Hospital Canteen,” but the director setting up the constraints does not know what the group will come up with.

In business it seems that constraints are usually seen as obstacles, there is an idea that given more…resources, money, staff, facilities, it will be easier to resolve the problem before them. In the theatre there is an understanding and a disciplined acceptance of constraints as the stuff that stimulates creation. The hardest thing an artist has to do is to select the first constraints that allow work to begin. “Shall I work in clay?.. Or in stone?” but once that decision is made and the constraints of the chosen medium can be felt, there is usually a sense of release and liberation. Creativity is a boundary phenomenon; until the boundaries can be described no work can be done.

It is clear from this that the details of language and expression are extremely important in creative leadership. Business pays not enough attention to the details of language and the peculiar sub-scientific argot that has evolved in the business community makes the precision of expression necessary for this kind of intervention very difficult. You cannot lead like this and talk in clichés.

The idea of constraints leads at once to questions about power. Of course there are directors who actively abuse power to get their results. They dominate, they bully, they seduce, they manipulate. The Parental model is very strong and all the rows of childhood can be revisited. But the best manage to avoid this. I guess they just do good parenting. The ensemble concept is central to this and I think creating and working as an ensemble limits, or to an extent redefines, the limits of the director's power. Working as an ensemble sets up an atmosphere of trust and mutuality which the director, having cultivated it, is also bound by. It is to do with suspension of hierarchy, acknowledgement and suspension of status games which allows for personal, almost confessional honesty within the group.

The best directors have a towering position in the hierarchy but don't play status in the rehearsal room. They are often disarmingly low status - admitting doubt, seeking, honest about mistakes or reversals. And it is this quality that perhaps lies behind the best creative leadership: it is essentially a quality of humility, of acknowledging that in a complex creative enterprise it is not possible to predict where the best ideas are going to come from, or what they are going to look like. Leaders must be strong and decisive but they must also be humble and accepting. The leader as Hero, Genius, Super-Star is as likely to lead his people to disaster as success; the best creative leaders are like gardeners, they grow solutions from the fertile minds of those for whom they are responsible.

If you want creativity and innovation in a business there is a good case to made for applying this model to any team. But it raises some important questions. Who needs to be on the team?. The actors in an ensemble constitute all those necessary to tell the story of the performance. “Teams” in business may not include all the necessary characters.