The Laws of Creativity: You Don’t Need to Be a Genius

In his article “You can learn to be creative, if you’re willing to embarrass yourself” for Quartz, James Clear begins with this premise: Our understanding of groundbreaking ideas is often propelled by storytelling in which a centrally organizing epiphany drives a brilliant creative accomplishment. Don’t be fooled. You don’t have to be a genius to create a top-notch discovery, invention or creation.

Taking the example of Newton and the discovery of the Laws of Gravity, Clear points out that Newton worked with the concepts for the Laws of Gravity for around 20 years before publishing. That’s more than the “eureka” moment we usually imagine when we think of Newton, and it proves it has always taken a lot more than a great idea to ship.

In fact, as Clear found in his research, “As long as you meet a threshold of intelligence, then brilliant creative work is well within your reach. In the words of researchers from a 2013 study, ‘we obtained evidence that once the intelligence threshold is met, personality factors become more predictive for creativity.'”

What does that mean for those of us who feel we don’t have everything we need to create? According to Clear, our personality traits are the drivers for our success in doing creative work and thus for the laws of creativity. Namely, we can adopt those traits that are compatible to reaching our creative goals.

As Clear defines them: 

  1. Adopt a “growth mindset”–if we imagine we are plastic, and therefore capable of change and growth, we in fact are. 
  2. Let go of the fear of embarrassment—without this fear, we overcome an internal obstacle to doing deep creative work. 

In my experience—including decades spent working with the brightest in filmmaking—I can attest that it’s true. The people who have achieved the most aren’t necessarily the most obvious successes. What they share is a willingness to labor in their craft, ship their best work, and respond to their audience in order to improve their next creative cycle.

I challenge you to set a goal. What will you ship?

Click here to see my related post about what actress Mindy Kaling says about hard work. 


Kansas City Choir Boy: Love and Inspiration

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on October 21, 2015.

Love lost and inspiration found hover like the angel of death over Kansas City Choir Boy, an intricate one-hour operetta with music and lyrics by Todd Almond and starring Almond, Courtney Love and a troupe of sirens and musicians. In less time than it takes most performances to set their wheels in motion, Kansas City Choir Boy navigates the entire course of a relationship. It’s theatre not to be missed.

The story is simple. A musician (Almond), holed up in a Midwestern motel room, sees a TV news report that Athena, a former lover (Love), was murdered in New York. He spirals to a fantasia of remembrance, playing through their courtship, love-play, and Athena’s decision to find her fortune in the big city.

Yet, under Kevin Newbury’s careful and sure direction, this simple thread creates a complex web. Almond’s songs are musically adventuresome, and his lyrics match them; they are filled with well-worked references and call-backs to fire, stars and light, imagery that is mirrored in Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s LED-rich set design.

Almond is immediately likable and relatable as a performer. He is tall and handsome and unprepossessing, and he moves with unselfconscious ease. Love has never been better. Her rounded, grounded portrayal of Athena is the center of the operetta’s wheel. Her husky voice holds melody perfectly, and gives earthy realism to her stately bearing. More than anything else, you sense that Almond and Love are having fun on stage: they enjoy being performers.

Kansas City Choir Boy details its love story in a way that brings to mind the central scene of Godard’s Contempt, in which Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot enact the beginning, middle and end of their relationship in a single walk through the unfinished doorways of their house, clad in sheets that make them look like Greek gods. “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically,” Piccoli says in that film. “When I say I want to fade away, I think you misunderstand,” sings Love, over and over, at Kansas City Choir Boy’s climax.

Thanks to Beth Morrison and Beth Morrison Projects for producing the show and bringing it on tour. It is hard to produce theatre that strays from the mainstream, but that’s the theatre that most needs support and is most rewarding. Kansas City Choir Boy is especially rewarding, and this is a show lucky theatre-goers will remember for a long time to come.

Kansas City Choir Boy plays through November 15. Tickets are available online at, by calling CTG Audience Services at (213) 628-2772, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles) or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office two hours prior to performances. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Ample free parking and restaurants are adjacent.

Top image: Todd Almond and Courtney Love in “Kansas City Choir Boy” at the Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Carrie the Musical: Better Than Blood

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on October 14, 2015.

Carrie The Musical is an invigorating revival of a show that succeeds because of its newfound intimacy. Staged in an immersive environment by Brady Schwind – the fabulously rococo Los Angeles Theatre has been transformed into a high school stage within a stage – Carrie brings the audience into the action with a mix of bravado and theme-park ride.

Stephen King’s well-known novel, on which the play is based, tells the story of a bullied teenage girl, entrapped by her mother’s religious dogma of sin and salvation, whose telekinetic powers wreak vengeance on her tormenters. King’s power in horror has always been that he allows the inside to come outside, and he will take his readers to places we hope can’t be real, but are. Children die. Abuse is rampant. Blood can come from everywhere.

This Carrie begins with blood, menstrual blood, visible manifestation of the inside coming out and a foreboding image of what’s to come. Emily Lopez, in a stellar performance as Carrie, has her first period in the high school gym shower, and the other girls, mean as mean girls can be, mock her. Carrie is meek and reserved, a mousey outsider who attracts torment. Her normally modest clothing and fundamentalist, Bible-induced attitudes, learned from her mother, only add fuel to the fire. Thanks to inventive staging, half of the audience is seated on risers that move throughout the show, at times backing away, at other times closing in to create a feeling of claustrophobia for Carrie, heightening the impact of her scenes.

The book has been modestly updated, in ways that sometimes work, sometimes don’t. All of the characters have cell phones, which didn’t exist in when the play premiered in 1988. It’s a nice touch that Carrie begins to shift her self-image when she looks at an iPhone selfie. But other attempts at updating don’t work: a throwaway line about gender fluidity falls flat.

The songs (music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, who collaborated on the classic 1984 film Footloose) function, often well, but none are memorable. They do not have the raw, nerve-touching aesthetic of today’s best stage musicals, and I wish they did. The music is well-rehearsed and perfectly performed, and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is a model other LA theatres can learn from.

In contrast to the songs, the performances are memorable. The cast is energetic and committed. Kayla Parker as Sue Snell bravely frames the story; Valerie Rose Curiel, as Carrie’s main school antagonist Chris, is a tightly wound “perfect” cheerleader with sublime unrepentance. Other notable cast members are Jon Robert Hall and Ian Littleworth, who bring subtlety and strength to their roles.

Strongest in the cast is Misty Cotton as Carrie’s mother. With a mane of red hair and an Old Testament temperament, she preaches the gospel of Jesus and sin. Cotton’s performance is the center of the Carrie wheel: she is strong, passionate, convicted of her own brand of justice, and the cause of Carrie’s psychic trauma. The show would not work without her, and hers is a performance not to be missed. When Cotton, aghast at her daughter’s emergent sexuality, says that she wishes she had not had her, you can imagine that the subtext is “unsex me here.” Lady Macbeth has nothing on Carrie’s mom.

The Shakespeare analogy goes deeper, too. Some theatre pieces offer nothing but surprise; that’s what happens when you see a new play. But other theatre performs repetition compulsion. When we see Macbeth or A Winter’s Tale, we know exactly what is going to happen, and many of us even know the lines. Still we buy our tickets. There is pleasure in seeing an old story told again.

So it is with Carrie. In case anyone didn’t know the story with its over-determined set-pieces, audiences are greeted in the lobby by blood-splattered prom queens, and the magnificent Los Angeles Theatre is decked out in its vase subterranean ballrooms and vestibules with the detritus of high school gone wrong: creepy locker rooms, abandoned showers, a pig that has given its last.

The pleasure of an old story comes with the fusion of inevitability (Carrie must do what she does, and there will be blood) with surprise (how will the blood be spilled?).

In Carrie the Musical, spilled blood may be what gets patrons in the door, but it is the variegated performances, inventive staging and psychology that keep us there. As with any theme-park ride, be prepared to fasten your seatbelt.

Tickets on sale through November 15. Information here:

Top image: Emily Lopez, as Carrie (left) and Misty Cotton as Carrie’s mother, in Carrie the Musical. Photo by Jason Niedle.

How to Go Off-Script—and Win With Your Pitches and Persuasive Presentations

You’re up. It’s your turn to present, and the success of weeks or more of work rely on the outcome of this meeting. Do you fire up your Prezi and read closely from your notes, or do you take a chance and go off-script? If you want really great pitch advice, ask a performer. Better yet, ask an improviser, a performer whose content is unrehearsed, and whose craft is responding to other performers and the audience.

Alright, when given the chance to present your own work, you’re going to do at least a bit of preparation. Still, the improviser’s perspective can be an advantage; a glimpse at how being nimble can help you win your audience.

Joe Berkowitz gives us great insight in his article “7 Tips for Pitching Ideas, from World-Class Improviser Jason Mantzoukas” written last month for Co.Create.

As Berkowitz writes, “It turns out some of the same problems that plague improv performers—not reading the room, seeming rigid and overly rehearsed—are the same ones that sink great ideas during formal presentations. One person who will never have problems in either of those areas, though, is Jason Mantzoukas.”

Berkowitz goes on to describe Mantzoukas’s seven lessons in context with scenarios from his past pitches and performances. To paraphrase each of the lessons so vividly illustrated in the article:

  1. Use a fresh pitch for each situation.
  2. Be prepared to give the audience more of whatever they respond to.
  3. “Don’t just listen to your audience’s feedback; incorporate it.”
  4. If you can own up to losing your way, there’s a way to win your audience back.
  5. Bring a visual aid to make your vision clear.
  6. Meet your audience where they are; your content will resonate.
  7. Assert yourself when necessary.

This is a great list of ways to be more persuasive when speaking and presenting. As Berkowitz quotes Mantzoukas:

“…More than anything I want, when I walk out of that room, I want people to feel like we together just had this great meeting where we talked about this show that we’re all excited about. Rather than, ‘Oh, I just heard someone talk about something at me.’ I want it to have been more of a ‘with me’ conversation.”

Isn’t that what we all want when our Prezi ends? I encourage my readers and audiences to own their presentations, and I think these are really great examples of how to do that effectively, and win.