This short piece reflects on the relationship between chaos and creativity in art and life. Many artists talk about chaos as a fertile ground for creativity, a force that can disrupt established patterns and inspire new ideas. One of my favorite authors, Italo Calvino, argues that chaos is an essential element in the act of creation, as it allows for new possibilities and ideas to emerge. He believes that writers and artists can harness the power of chaos to break free from conventional thinking and explore new realms of creativity.
While I find it easy to understand how chaos could serve as a catalyst for artistic expression, I struggle to see how chaos could have beneficial effects in life. As a theatremaker, I have firsthand experience of how embracing uncertainty can often help performers tap into their creative potential and produce innovative work. In my personal experience, this is an inevitable aspect of the creative process. But what about life?
On a rational level, I fully understand that when we are willing to let go of rigid control, new ideas and perspectives might emerge not only in art but also in life. However, my response to the chaos outside the rehearsal room is not so welcoming: I find it difficult to embrace uncertainty. Indeed, a lack of clarity in my thinking makes me feel anxious, and a lack of tidiness and order around me makes me feel nervous.
I wonder if there is a different way to respond to confusion and disorder. Would it be possible to apply the lessons learned from my theatre practice to life's events? Can I overcome my initial fears and discomfort in welcoming chaos into my life as I do in the rehearsal room? Obviously, I am not talking about absolute chaos in every aspect of my existence. There are certain areas of my life where chaos might not be particularly useful, for example, in filing my tax return, packing my luggage, or planning my travel itinerary!
I am referring to situations in life when, perhaps, we can afford to temporarily surrender to chaos and accept confusion as an inevitable component of the experience. Certainly uncomfortable, possibly unpleasant, but useful nonetheless.
I wonder if creative breakthroughs could emerge from chaos offering some tools for cultivating a more open and creative mindset.
In collaborative and devising contexts, theatre practitioners, including myself, work with their collaborators to create performances from scratch, without a pre-existing script. There is always an idea or situation that serves as a starting point for our creative exploration. For instance, we might choose to work on a specific theme and use initial stimuli such as memories, stories, images, props, etc. These stimuli are both inspiring and limiting, as they provide a supportive structure around which we can build our work. We play within a defined framework. While this may initially sound restrictive, it is actually necessary for me to have a structure and limitation.
Even though we have a structure and likely lots of ideas and a vision for our piece, we don't know where the creative process will lead us. It's a (re)search. Therefore, we cannot predict the outcome. If we knew, we would call our work something else - neither research nor devising. Inevitably, throughout the creative process, there will be moments of confusion, disorientation, and chaos. During those instances, we may feel lost, as if we were wandering in the dark without any clear direction.
This perceived 'lack of direction' is actually a good sign because an artistic project isn't a race or a journey with a linear trajectory. It's an adventure. The end result is unknown. It's a quest that requires patience, trust, and open-mindedness. Chaos is not something to be feared, but rather welcomed as a necessary part of the creative process. It is precisely in those moments of chaos that sudden ideas, mistakes, or deviations from the plan can spark new possibilities and enrich the work. Instead of trying to control or avoid chaos, we can learn to embrace it as an opportunity to explore the unexpected and challenge our assumptions as creators.
Trust in the process and a willingness to embrace the unexpected are key elements in creating exciting theatre. Accepting to be lost in the ‘temporary chaos of creation’ is exciting but also disorientating for both actors and directors. This moment of apparent confusion that I call ‘unbound playfulness’ can be described as a "fruitful chaos, a fertile nothingness." Victor Turner describes it as "a storehouse of possibilities, not by any means a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structure, a gestation process" (Turner, 1982, cited in Broadhurst, 1999, pp.11-13). Characters, situations, and images emerge by chance from this chaos. They are little gems amongst a vast amount of material that is often uninteresting and not particularly inspiring. It is indeed an intrinsic feature of devising that only a small percentage of what is produced in improvisation is eventually used in performance.
Through observation, isolation, and repetition, the ensemble collects material for the performance. These precious moments are like pearls, discovered after a thorough process of research that embraces failure. We dive into the unknown, uncertain if we will find valuable material. Once we have collected our gems, we begin to work on them, transforming raw material into performance material: a series of repeatable physical and vocal scores that are polished and refined through repetition. In the final stages of the rehearsal process, this material is interwoven or juxtaposed to develop the piece, known as the 'montage phase'. Piecing together these beautiful moments is akin to stringing the pearls of a necklace.
The various stages of the creative process evoke a range of emotions, from joy and elation to frustration and despair. In my experience, the creative process is akin to an emotional rollercoaster, but also an incredibly rewarding experience that is shaped by a delicate balance of structure and chaos, limitations and freedom.
Likewise, in life, embracing chaos does not entail abandoning structure or planning altogether. It means being open to the unknown and being willing to adapt and learn as we navigate the complexities of life. While this may sound good in theory, what are the potential benefits of embracing chaos in real-life situations? When can uncertainty lead to creative breakthroughs?
As someone who has gained insights from my experience in theatre, I've learned the value of playfulness and accepting failure. I know it might sound like a cliché, and honestly, it can even be a tad annoying at times! Being reminded that we ‘should’ accept failure and learn from our mistakes can sometimes come across as patronising. After all, if we’re honest, don’t we all strive for success? However, is success always tied to meticulous planning and knowing? Perhaps, seeking order and predictability is not always the solution either. We might have a preconceived notion that taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zone will increase our chances of failure and ‘getting hurt’. But I wonder, is being unhappily in control worse than being excitingly lost?
Chaos has the potential to break us out of routine or conventional thinking, allowing us to venture into uncharted territory and generate innovative solutions. Personally, I often find myself falling into patterns that influence my actions, resulting in a lack of creativity and surprise. I tend to rely on the same tools and models of thinking and behaviour, leading to the same outcomes in similar situations. I would definitely benefit from a more ‘experimental approach’ to life!
Embracing chaos can broaden our horizons to unexpected opportunities. When we are willing to let go of strict control or preconceived paths, we create space for spontaneity and unforeseen events. Sometimes, the most meaningful experiences or opportunities in life arise from unexpected circumstances or chance encounters. By welcoming chaos and being open to new possibilities, we become more receptive to serendipitous moments and can embrace opportunities that we may not have planned or anticipated.
Life is inherently uncertain and dynamic, filled with changes and challenges. Embracing the fact that we cannot always in control and that unpredictability is a part of life can make us more resilient and adaptable. Striking a balance between chaos and order is crucial, as excessive chaos can lead to confusion while excessive order can result in rigidity or stagnation.
In the end, perhaps chaos can be viewed as a creative force that has the potential to transform both our art and our lives. By learning to embrace it in specific circumstances, we can unlock new possibilities and achieve breakthroughs that we may have never thought possible. Applying our rationality and analytical skills to evaluate each situation and provide the necessary structure can enable us to attain this. The chaos that seemed formless and random becomes the very essence of possibility.
Understanding how chaos and order interact and effectively navigating them, can lead to a more dynamic and creative approach to life and art. Embracing chaos as a catalyst for growth, exploration, and innovation can yield unexpected outcomes and enrich our experiences. By being open to change, embracing the unknown, and finding the right balance between chaos and order, we can unleash the true potential of chaos in our lives and creative endeavors.