Arousal and Control

Anne Bogart's picture

Most of us are regularly plagued by doubt, overwhelmed by the impossible odds against us, discouraged by lack of support and dragged down by physical and emotional hardships.  And yet, despite this, why is it that some people can regularly rise above such difficulties and make more headway in their creative work than others?  Is there a way to calibrate and encourage a balance of energies and forces in one’s daily life to optimize the ability to renew and flourish?  What is the ratio or balance required to maintain creative flow in sufficient doses in daily life? What are the keys to maintaining creative impetus and flow, to harnessing the available streams of inspiration, inventiveness and resourcefulness necessary for the creative act?   

On any given day, a narrow margin of personal equilibrium and balance is required in order to be productive and innovative.  With sufficient food and protected from danger, when provided a modicum of support from family, colleagues or loved ones, when not in pain, when equipped with the tools to tell a story, it just may be possible to be creative.  It also helps to be part of a culture that receives artistic output in good faith and feels that what art does is necessary.  With all of these factors lined up properly, we just might have a chance to be creative.  

But even amidst the best external circumstances, other obstacles arise and these are personal, intimate and interior.  We all experience moods, shifting from anxiety to worry, apathy to boredom, relaxation, arousal, control and flow. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, arousal and control are the key ingredients in the creative act. Arousal is the result of an optimal balance between incoming stimulations and the nervous system’s ability to assimilate them. Control relates to technique and is earned through long and steady practice. In Csikszentmihalyi’s formulation, flow can be the consequence of aligning arousal and control.  

Generally I find pleasure in action and I crave consistent challenges that require me to respond with the tools and techniques that life and the creative endeavor have instilled in me.  Without regular obstacles and the energy and inventiveness needed to tackle them, I tend to shut down, physically, intellectually and emotionally. As a young director I developed technique and control through the constant arousal of seemingly impossible obstacles.  These experiences were formative and indispensable. 

In 1980 I received an invitation from Steve Wangh and Suzanne Baxtresser and their newly formed theater company Present Stage, to direct a parade in Northampton, Massachusetts. I accepted on the condition that I could reverse the normal conventions of a parade.  Rather than the audience on the sidewalks and performers moving along the street, I proposed that the audience walk the streets while the staged events took place in shop windows, rooftops and parking lots along the way.  My proposal was accepted and I began to work towards the big event, scheduled for August 10th of that year.  

To drum up interest in the parade, I decided to stage ten distinct performance events on each of the ten evenings leading up to August 10th.  I called these performances Flashes.  About twenty local actors and dancers agreed to function as a core-group, to co-create and perform the ten Flashes.  I led workshops during which the group coalesced into what felt like a company.  During the month leading up to August 1st I spent each day convincing diverse groups from around Northampton to participate in the parade and worked to establish the nature of their participation. The groups included a Polish marching band, the Northampton fire department, an association of veterans of foreign war, an equestrian club, an alliance of women against violence and many, many others.  Some wanted me to oversee and direct their specific contributions and others simply promised to show up on the day of the parade prepared to perform. All day long each day I worked to prepare the parade and in the evenings I conducted workshops with the core group of local performers.  Each day started early and ended late in the night.

As August 1st approached I had planned a scenario for each of the ten Flashes but it was not until the day of each performance that I actually staged the piece. Rehearsal began at five o’clock on the day of the Flash and at eight o’clock an audience would assemble, ready for a show.  Each Flash commenced in Pulaski Park in the heart of the town of Northampton.  The opening gesture was the same every night: the core performers entered the park and performed a unison dance with newspapers.  Then each night the audience would follow the performers to a different part of Northampton for the remainder of the performance.  One evening transpired on a Japanese bridge within the Smith College campus, another on nearby coal hills upon which belly dancers danced and another happened in a local gallery and performance space.  In addition to the core group of performers, each night I arranged for different local musicians, dancers and other artists to join the rehearsal at 5.  On any one evening we might have horses to incorporate into that evening’s Flash or an exotic dance group or a kite club.

While working on the parade and the Flashes, I invited a few friends from New York City to join the endeavor. Kevin Kuhlke, who had recently participated in formative experiences in Poland with Jerzy Grotowski, arrived in Northampton to help out.  In sync with the theme of the Flashes, Kevin proposed to offer a series of paratheatrical adventures he called Blazes to the local core-group of performers.  Each Blaze began at midnight and lasted until four or five in the morning and covered much terrain in the forests and streams surrounding Northampton.  I participated with many of our core group performers in these highly rigorous, physically exhausting and life-altering paratheatrical adventures. 

During the weeks of organizing the parade, staging the Flashes and participating in the Blazes, I did not sleep much. Pushed to my own limits by the contrasting circumstances and obstacles, I was challenged and aroused in ways that became exceedingly constructive to my development as a theater director.  The Flashes taught me that with the proper preparation and a brain-trust of likeminded collaborators, an event could be staged in as little as three hours.  While running through the woods in the middle of the night as part of Kevin’s Blazes, I learned that I had far more endurance and physical stamina than I knew or imagined.  Working to organize the big parade I learned about the art of arrangement and the importance of engagement with disparate and non-likeminded groups.  All three instilled in me the necessity for patience, dogged perseverance, a positive attitude and a deep trust that things will work out in the end. All three are also issues that I continue to grapple with to this day.

Looking back now upon the summer of 1980 I wonder what I am doing now to keep the edges sharp. How am I working regularly outside of my own comfort zone?  How can I consistently embrace new obstacles and challenges?  I worry that habit and long-standing assumptions have hijacked valuable real estate in my brain.  I look to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s formulation of arousal and control for the answer.  I want to learn how to calibrate the vicissitudes of feeling that can course through any day. I want to encourage arousal and meet it with control.