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  • Writer's pictureJoJo

Creatively Practical or Practically Creative?

As you've probably noticed, the past couple of weeks have been heckin' hot. I'm a pale northern girl. I'm not at my most productive in higher temperatures. I basically achieved nothing between June and August while living in Madrid and simply allowed myself to lie around in human puddle form.

My sewing machine has been given some downtime until the temperature decreases a little bit so I don't have any new "makes" to share with you.

Instead I'm posting an article I originally wrote for Refresh Magazine, which is an online magazine for all kinds of creative folk including writers, poets, photographers, musicians and artists.

This article explores the internal clash between my practicality and creativity as well as the value society as a whole places on these two different strengths.

People have often said that I must be a very creative person.

I worked in theatre. I sew things. I like writing. All the clues are there. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that I must possess a smidgen of creativity. However, I often push back against this assumption.

Being labelled as creative feels like a badge of honour that I struggle to live up to. It feels like there’s an expectation that I can come up with new ideas at the drop of a hat or that the inside of my head is a buzzing place full of magical notions and never-ending stories. If the people who think I’m creative could go for a casual stroll inside my head, I fear they would be terribly disappointed. It’s mostly full of Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotes and memories of boulders I’ve climbed. I can picture with absolute clarity the location of a random boulder I climbed two years ago, as well as the sequence of moves required to get from the bottom to the top of it. But ask me to picture something at random from an infinite world of possibilities and my mind goes alarmingly blank.

A costume design for a fire creature
One of my better design efforts

When I was at college studying costume the design classes regularly reduced me to tears. Few things fill me with more fear and dread than the sight of a blank piece of a paper and a pencil. This is partly down to the fact that I’m terrible at drawing, but I was also totally overwhelmed by the possibilities that blank page presented to me. What does the costume need to convey about the character’s personality? Should they wear a three-piece suit or jeans and a t-shirt? What colour should the costume be? Is it neatly ironed or crumpled? Are the fabrics heavy or light? Are the clothes new or old? Fancy or casual? Expensive or cheap? When you’re a designer, you can draw any lines on that page, in any direction, to convey any meaning and make anything you want come to life.

And I find that bloody terrifying.

Aside from being intimidated by the assumption of creativity, I also have some molten baggage that occasionally bubbles up from the magma core of my brain at the memory of certain creative people. In my short time working in theatre, I met a small selection of people that lived up to the stereotype of ‘creative genius’. It didn’t matter if they were rude or inconsiderate. It made no difference that their demands were unreasonable. Nobody gave a toss if they upset people. They weren’t expected to waste their time on trivial niceties because they were creative. There’s a strong association in my head between being creative and having a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to common decency.

So, seeing as being a designer clearly wasn’t the career for me, I pursued the more hands-on side of theatre costume. I became a wardrobe mistress, not just because of the slightly kinky sounding job title but also because it suited me better. Despite what people may think, I actually see myself as far more practical than creative and this job sat more comfortably with this view of myself.

Being a wardrobe mistress involves practical problem solving with the inventive use of Velcro, the occasional wielding of a hot glue gun and the application of metres and metres of heavy-duty thread. One aspect of the job is to adjust the costumes to make them fit the actors’ bodies and the parameters of what those bodies need to do on stage. Maybe Cinderella’s cloak is too long and trips her up when she gets into her pumpkin carriage. The director insists that she wears it for this scene. The hem can’t be cut because the costume is hired. And there's no time to make a new one because the show opens tonight. That kind of thing.

A backstage theatre worker wearing a goose head costume
The fun side of working backstage

I also had to make sure the costumes were in the right location for the quickest of quick changes. This may sound like a simple task but the combination of multiple actors with multiple costumes going in and out of multiple doors multiple times in multiple acts means it soon gets complicated. It’s a bit like that brain teaser which involves getting a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage from one side of the river to the other without any of them eating one another. Except swap the wolf for a director, the goat for an actor, and the cabbage for a sexy sailor boy costume. They probably won’t eat each other but things can get pretty tense backstage sometimes so nothing is out of the question.

While working backstage, I had the opportunity to witness the incredible skills of many wardrobe mistresses and masters, dressers, stage managers, and technicians. These were the people that made things actually happen. They turned drawings on a page into functioning pieces of theatre and, if all went to plan, the audience would have no idea they were there.

I think people have an unhelpful tendency to fetishise the ideas people and not appreciate the contributions of the people who make those ideas happen. Descartes may have been extremely intellectual by declaring ‘I think therefore I am’ but there’s a fat load of good to come from all his creative thinking if there’s nobody around to turn those thoughts into real, tangible things. If Descartes was an actor, he’d be doing all his thinking totally naked, on an empty stage, with no spotlight. He’d be severely missing the contributions of all the practical people that make him look good while performing his profound pondering. Given the opportunity, I’d replace Descartes's saying with ‘I do therefore I am’.

So, I push back against being thought of as creative due to worries about being found out as a fraud, some bad associations with unpleasant people, and because I think it glosses over the value of the practical skills I possess.

But life is seldom black and white, and I know this bias perspective stops me embracing my own creativity and means I devalue the creativity of others. I couldn’t have found solutions to all the problems I faced backstage if I couldn’t think creatively. I couldn’t have organised hundreds of costumes and many actors if I couldn’t imagine their journeys around the stage from curtain up to the final bows. And I couldn’t have done any of it without the people who designed the whole thing in the first place. Even if they were occasionally rude and forgot the names of all those people who did their best work when nobody was watching.

A bit of practicality and creativity

In reality, I shouldn’t prize creativity over practicality or vice versa. They’re two sides of the same coin. Heads and tails. North and south. Chunky and smooth. When experiencing brilliant pieces of theatre, medical breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries, I should remember that hundreds of people with a broad range of skills made those things possible. Whether these people are practically creative, creatively practical or somewhere in between their contributions matter. Each step in the process from idea to concept is important and worthy.

We think, therefore we do.

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