In art, anything is possible. Through the alchemy of creativity we can become anyone, do anything, go anywhere. The possibilities are limitless.
So it goes without saying that, whether you are a writer, a dancer, or a jazz sousaphonist, being free to express yourself fully and without limitations can only lead to better art, right?
Well, no. Not exactly.
To better understand this, take a gander at that work of classic American literature known as The Star Wars Saga, penned by once beloved and now lampooned writer and director, George Walton Lucas Jr. The original film, A New Hope, ran into its share of roadblocks on the journey from conception to the pop culture hall of fame. Hell, its very conception was rough. It was first slated to be a Flash Gordon film.
Nope, couldn’t get the rights, so they adapted it into a brand new galaxy that existed “long, long ago.” Next, the props department was tasked with building that brand new long, long ago galaxy.
Nope, they were low on cash, so they slapped everything together using parts from scrapped airplanes. Next, a Star Wars movie needs movie stars.
Nope, actors are expensive. So, they cast a group of relative unknowns, and their best known actor, Alec Guinness, was openly disdainful of the project, calling it “fairytale rubbish.”
Even the script struggled to make it to the screen, as Lucas was often limited by budget, time, and the wise guidance of his wife, Marcia, who acted as editor for the film. The entire process was an exercise in inspiration coming into conflict with limitation. But, in the end, it was pretty darn good.
So, old Lucas decided to do a prequel. Awesome. This time he would have no limitations. No boundaries. He had a massive budget, the power of new computer graphics to bring his world to life, and a team that was completely under his command. His creative vision was unleashed with little restraint and, in the end, man, it was pretty darn awful.
Unbound creativity does not equal better art.
When you are in the process of creation, limitations can feel stifling. Nothing is more obnoxious than having your brilliant idea snuffed out due to budgetary constraints or because an editor said “No, dude, that’s stupid.” Coloring outside the lines, improvising outside the script, and breaking the rules seems more in line with what it means to be an artist.
However, there is power in limits. Those frustrating obstacles that have you pulling out your hair can be a valuable tool. Like many creative disciplines, we can learn much from the play of children. When kids look up at the shapes, lines, and form of a passing cloud, they allow their imagination to go to work. That fluffy cumulus formation becomes an alien creature or a bizarre landscape never before seen by human eyes. It becomes a rich amalgamation of the content in their mind and the existing form of the cloud, creating something that wouldn’t have existed if they had simply been inventing on a blank canvas.
When you create in a void, without limitation, what you make is wholly your own. However, it will never surprise you. Without that surprise, there is no innovation. No growth. Applying limits, or form, to push up against can lead you into unexpected territory. When the mind runs up against obstacles, it must dig deeper to invent new solutions. That push and pull, that struggle between where we want to go and what is keeping us from getting there, creates work that is richer and more innovative. The poet Wendell Berry said that form “serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course… the mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Art, by its nature, is created through the dialogue between form and inspiration. The painter creates by pushing the boundaries of what can be done within the limits of the paint. The sculptor finds the beauty within the boundaries of the clay. The dancer creates by exploring the interplay of inspiration, physics, and the human body.
Here at the Interactive Deep Dive, we test these limits every day. Crafting interactive narrative is a complex struggle between the imagination of the audience, the structures of narrative, and the restraints of reality. However, by testing these boundaries, an interactive team can surprise an audience and, often, themselves. Part of training as an interactive storyteller consists of applying additional limitations- like creating a site-specific experience, crafting a story within a theme, or communicating solely through movement. These challenges give the story a life of its own, impede the easy way forward, and take the narrative on journeys to unforeseen places.
So next time you run up against a wall, good for you! Your journey just got a lot more interesting. Embrace those walls, explore the unexplored, and don’t end up like a Star Wars prequel. Whether you are a writer, a dancer, or a jazz sousaphonist, being subject to limitations can lead to better art.
Note: For a much smarter, but far less Star Wars ridden treatise on this subject, check out Free Play: Improvisation In Life And Art by Stephen Nachmanovich, which I pulled from while writing this post.
Kevin is originally from Oklahoma City, and now calls Austin home. Prior to joining The Deep Dive, he worked in New York City as a creator of interactive theater, collaborating with companies like Interactive PlayLab, Peculiar Works, Journey Lab, and Live In Theater. During that time, he also worked as an educator for Brooklyn Public Schools and for alter-abled education programs like YAI, Dreamstreet Theater Company, EPIC Players and Florida Studio Theater’s VIP Program. He now combines his backgrounds as an interactor and educator by designing simulation training programs for use in education, healthcare, or any organization that wishes to train its staff to better communicate in high-stress situations.