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Bonnieby Bonnie Katz, MA

Are you blocking your creativity?

For the past 25 years, John Cleese (Monty Python), has been doing research on the subject of creativity.  Every actor who strives to produce great work needs to know the answers to two important questions: 1- How do creative people produce their stuff? 2- How can you be more creative?  The following is an excerpt taken from his talk at Video Arts in London, in which he reveals the key elements to becoming more creative and what you can do to stop blocking your creativity.

Brian Bates, a researcher and psychologist on creativity confirmed what Dr. Donald W. McKinnon, a researcher in human personality at the University of California at Berkeley stated back in the 60’s, “Creativity cannot be explained! ”  But, he did discover precisely what creativity isn’t. “Kind of like when a famous sculptor was asked how he carved such a beautiful elephant, he replied, ‘He took a big piece of marble and carved away everything that didn’t look like an elephant.'”  Cleese continues to explain that contrary to belief, creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating.  It is not an ability that you either have or don’t have and it is absolutely unrelated to a person’s IQ.  McKinnon showed that those people regarded by their peers as being the most creative had acquired a facility for simply getting themselves in a particular mood which allowed their natural creativity to emerge.  To put it simply, they had the ability to play.  To be childlike, play with ideas and explore them for enjoyment. They operated in an open system vs. a closed system. Creativity is not possible in the closed mode. The closed mode has lots of stress, anxiety, impatience, and tension.  It is a humorless place where only the the pressure of getting things done exists.  Whereas, the open mode is relaxed, expansive, humorous, and playful.  Curiosity is operant, not pressure.  One of Alfred Hitchcock’s co-writers described working with him on a screenplay when they were up against a block.  “When discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the task at hand.  At first, the coworker was almost outraged, but then he discovered that Hitchcock did this intentionally, because he mistrusted working under pressure.  He would say, ‘We’re pressing, we’re working too hard, relax and it will come.’  And of course it always did.”

Cleese elaborates that the open mode is relaxed and easy so that your creativity can flow, but once you have your ideas you must go into closed mode to focus, be decisive, and move forward.  “Open mode when pondering a problem, but when you’ve come up with a solution switch to closed mode to implement it because once you’ve made a decision, you are efficient only if you go through with it decisively, undistracted by self-doubt or correctness.  After it’s carried out, switch back to your open mode to get feedback and to discuss the course you have chosen.  You want to evaluate if your course was successful and you should continue with your plan or create an alternative plan.  To be the most efficient, you need to switch backwards and forwards between the two modes.  We too often get stuck in the closed mode and mantain tunnel vision when we need to step back and get a wider view.”  Brilliant, clear advice on how to manifest creativity and then be able to put it to work for you.  This is so important for actors, especially when they  get stuck with a creative decision that is not working and cannot let it go easily beause their egos are tied into it.  Rather than sulk and feel hurt, jump back into the open mode and through curiosity and playfulness, another creative idea will come to you.  Let go of what isn’t working and get into the open mode for something new to emerge.

There are 5 conditions that will get you into the open mode so creativity  will occur:

  1. SPACE– Create space away from pressure.  Seal yourself off in a quiet place where you will be undisturbed.
  2. TIME– Decide on a specific period of time when your open mode will begin and a specific time it will end. You are creating an oasis of quiet for yourself by creating boundaries of space and time.  Now creativity can happen.  Unplug your phones and gadgets.  When the mind starts wandering off back to your to-do list or the plant that needs watering, catch yourself doing it, let it go and come back to the moment. Expect that your mind will start racing, it’s not used to being still.  Eventually it will quiet down.  Practice mindful meditation to help with your focus.  Remember, the mind likes to think of little things to do because they are easy, the big things, you’re not so sure about.  Usually 90 minutes is a good chunk of time to put aside, not too much, not too little.
  3. TIME– The best way to use this time is by sticking at it until you come up with something original.  Don’t grab at the first thing that comes to you.  Be prepared to tolerate the anxiety that comes when you don’t solve the problem right away.  Don’t take the first idea just to make yourself feel better.  The most creative people learn to tolerate the uncomfortableness much longer than most.  The more pondering time, the more creative solutions.  Stop trying to be right and confident, those feelings will stifle your creativity.
  4. CONFIDENCE– When you’re in your space and time oasis, getting into the open mode, nothing will block you more than the fear of making a mistake.  When you’re in play mode everything that happens is okay.  You cannot be playful if you’re frightened that some direction will be wrong.  You’re either free to play or not.  Alan Watts says, “You cannot be spontaneous within reason.”  Any drivel may lead to the breakthrough.
  5. HUMOR– Will get you from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.  Laughter brings us relaxation.  Humor makes us playful.  Humor is an essential part of the kind of creativity that we need to solve problems.  Cleese mentions, “The two most beautiful memorial services I’ve ever been to both had a lot of humor and it somehow freed us all and made the services inspiring and cathartic. Humor is an essential part of the creativity we need to solve problems, no matter how serious they may be.”

Remember to keep your mind gently around the subject; be friendly, but persistent.  You will get rewarded with a creative solution in an hour or a couple of days.  Pop, it will appear, a new thought, a new solution.  It’s also easier to be creative if you have others to play with.  But if there is one person that makes you feel defensive, you will lose the confidence to play…and good-bye, creativity.  So, make sure that you play with people you like and trust, and never say anything to squash their creativity.  Never say, “no,” or, “wrong ,”or, “I don’t like that.”  Always be positive and build on what’s being said.  Try to establish as free an atmosphere as possible.

Begin your giggles now:

How many American network TV executives does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  answer: Does it have to be a lightbulb?

 Listen to John Cleese’s talk here…enjoy


Bonnie Katz is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. One of her specialties is working with artists in the Entertainment Industry. Her skills and training as a psychotherapist and mindful meditator enable her to work with clients in an atmosphere of warmth and understanding. For more information on Bonnie’s psychotherapy practice, visit her website.Follow her on Twitter and Facebook


I’ve created The Conscious Actor Inspiration Journal; to help actors develop awareness of what inspires them. Beautiful pages filled with inspirational quotes to help keep you strong minded. For New York actors, the journal is available at Drama Book Shop.

Conscious Actor articles are not a substitution for professional psychotherapy.