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Drawing Creativity Out of People February 14, 2013

Posted by jayocallahan in Creativity.
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My task in a workshop is to lead participants out of the boxes we all make out of ordinary life. In one workshop I worked with breaking the restraint of proximity. The participants broke up into pairs, they stood up and I asked them to imagine they are on a subway in Japan. They were so close to a Japanese person they avoided making eye contact. The participants were told they did not speak Japanese and the Japanese subway rider did not speak English. They were given thirty seconds and asked to find someway to make contact. One participant smelled something very odd and was able to make a face indicating it was the smell that allowed her to communicate to the other person. Another participant waited almost twenty-nine seconds and then shifted quickly to the right as if the subway car had jostled her, and her eyes flew open and that’s the way she communicated. The idea of this was to find a creative way to make contact with a person you’ll never see again without offending them.

Each day presents small or large opportunities to be creative. At this time in my life what interests me most is drawing creativity out of people.

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Creativity Through the Senses February 5, 2013

Posted by jayocallahan in Creativity.
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Maple Leaf In a recent workshop I gave participants several maple or oak leaves I had found in a corner of the driveway. I had participants shut their eyes and handed out one leaf to each. They were to touch the leaf for a minute and then open their eyes and look at it for another minute or two minutes. And finally they wrote a short poem about the leaf. After writing the poem they held the leaf up and the leaf was suddenly alive and important to us.

My own leaf was a maple leaf. It reminded me of an owl’s face. It was very thin, it had hundreds and hundreds of tiny brown dots, it was cut in places, there were holes and it was blackened at the bottom but it was intact. It was as beautiful as any painting I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of the face of a person who’s experienced a great deal of life. I remembered the face of an old man coming across the desert in Mali long years ago.

This exercise gave us a chance to imagine after touching and seeing and the poems were all fresh and alive.

Two Gems: Neil Armstrong and Emily Dickinson December 18, 2012

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Neil Armstrong was a Midwestern boy and Emily Dickinson grew up in Amherst in New England. They were very different but there were lots of similarities. They both knew how to concentrate. They both loved their work and did it brilliantly. Each of them knew how to withdraw in order to keep balanced and do the work they had to do.

Dickenson wrote,

“I dwell in possibility.

A fairer house than prose.”

They both dwelt in possibility. And in a way an impossibility. What are the chances that a teenage girl who loves to play the piano and sing run through the woods with friends will become one of the very great poets? What are the chances that a boy who flies balsam planes will be the first human being to stand on the moon?

They were both affected by war. Neil Armstrong nearly lost his life when the wing of his plane was cut in half flying over North Korea. He ejected and was lucky to live. When Fraser Sterns, a young man from Amherst, died in the Civil War Emily wrote to her Norcross cousins, “Let us live better children. It’s most that’s left to us.”

Neil Armstrong didn’t seem to enjoy the parties of the astronauts and families, but he could be found in the corner at the piano playing ragtime. Emily Dickinson could be found sitting in the darkness upstairs listening to a friend playing the piano downstairs.

Main Street, Jonesborough May 3, 2012

Posted by jayocallahan in Jonesborough.
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Creating Main Street, Jonesborough was like climbing a great, rocky mountain during a fog, which turned into a rainstorm, which became a sleet storm and then a ragingly hot day, which parched me and dizzied me so that I started going backwards for days and weeks.

Main Street, Jonesborough was something I dreamed about and one of the dreams was so vivid I was totally lost in the dream.

Main Street, Jonesborough

In the dream I was in a crowded tavern and thought everyone must have been drinking because they spoke so oddly. There must have been a hundred people laughing and talking in the tavern. I could hear horses and carriages going by outside. I could hear the sound of market sellers shouting outside even though it was night. Then I thought, well these must be actors acting some Elizabethan drama and they’re still in costume because they have to do a scene later on. There were lanterns all about but no sign of electricity anywhere. Several colorfully dressed men were smoking pipes and I noticed they were clay pipes and a few were ornamented with gold. I managed to find a table in the rear where there was a man in his forties sitting, nodding to himself. The man had a short red-brown beard; he was balding and had warm alert green eyes. He looked at me and said, “I’ve had more than more.” He laughed and raised his hand for another ale and then called, “Two, two ales.” A waitress dressed as a serving maid brought two ales. She was tall, black-haired and very pretty but when she smiled I saw she was missing a tooth.

“You look worn,” he said.

“I am. I’ve been working on a story called Main Street, Jonesborough. I feel I’ve been at it for years.”

“Tell me,” he said. His voice was strong and rich. Perhaps he’s a singer or maybe an actor I thought.

“It’s about a town,” I said. “It’s a town that nearly died.”

“Death’s good in a story. It keeps attention.”

“But this is a town that turned around; it came back to life. It’s a kind of resurrection story.”

“Ah, a comedy,” he laughed. “A comedy.”

“Well,” I said, “there’s comedy in it but it’s an odd story. It’s a tumble of scenes. I have students that I’ve created and these students are acting out buildings in the town. Can you imagine that? I have the students acting out townspeople. And then I have townspeople telling stories of their lives so they ‘re introducing more characters. There are characters all over the place, there are almost as many characters in my story as there are in this tavern.” I was warming up and went on. “There’s war and song. There’s a man rising up in life because he knows so much about the water. He knows everything about the water in the town.”

My listener smiled asking, “Does he have water on the brain?” And he went on, “Your story sounds wild. What holds it all together?”

“A young woman holds it altogether. She’s been betrayed by her lover and so she goes far from her big city to live in this little town for a year. She goes to live with her grandmother but when she arrives in the town she’s appalled. It’s looks awful compared to the memory of her childhood so she feels betrayed by both her lover and town.”

The bearded man drank more of his ale and said in that strong voice, “Is it entertaining?”

“Well, it entertained me,” I said. “I think it works but I’ve never done anything like it.”

“Have you got some lively characters, funny characters?”

“Well there is one funny character, his name is Buddy Gresham. He’s a local bootlegger. He keeps spirits bright.”

The man looked puzzled. Was it the word bootlegger? “Maybe you need some evil characters,” he said. He looked at me and said, “I’ve written some awful ones. Too many words, boring, boring. I like your Buddy Gresham character. Maybe you need more like him.” Then the man began to stand up and said, “I must go. Another ale, I won’t be able to walk home, but I needed this tonight. I just….”

“You just needed to relax,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “I’ve been at it. I’ve been working on a long story about a king who has three daughters.”

“Not, Lear,” I said. “Not King Lear?”

“Yes!” He looked suddenly alert and surprised. “Who art thou?”

“Well if it’s Lear you’ve done you must be exhausted,” I said.

He was standing now, a little unsteady and he said, “Well, it all ends badly. There are corpses all over the place. I don’t know if it works. Oh Lear, Lear, Lear. Oh, he’s drowned me. Lear, Lear, Lear.”

He was leaving and I called after him, “Don’t worry about it. It works, it works.”

And he turned, “Well thank you, thank you. I hope it plays well. One day I hope to drop the pen and go back to Stratford and put my feet up.
The dream ended but the voices of the tavern continued through the night. I wish I could have told him the whole story.

A Magic Night at the Gardner Museum January 17, 2012

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.
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Saturday night, January 14, 2012, my wife Linda and I seemed to be in Venice, but we were in Boston. We were at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, or Fenway Court, as it was known during Isabella Stewart Gardner’s lifetime. She was a woman of drive, imagination and spirit. She loved art. The museum was designed to emulate a 15th century Venetian palace and was opened to the public in 1903.

Saturday night was below freezing and Linda and I parked on Palace Road, walked in the dark around the corner only to find the street was lit up by a stunning glass building–the new wing of the Gardner Museum. People were hurrying into the vast foyer dressed for the grand opening. As a former Artist-in-Residence at the museum, I ‘d been invited.

Everything was welcoming and well organized. Our coats were taken and we walked down a glass hallway and could see the outside trees lit up stretching towards the stars. Waiters and waitresses in black shirts greeted us carrying trays of tall glasses of white wine.  Suddenly we were at the Courtyard, the heart of the original museum.  I’d never come in to the Gardner Museum this way. I was disoriented. All around me were the stone columns, statues and an ancient sarcophagus. The courtyard stretches up four floors to a glass roof. The Venetian walls look as if a great cloth of orange and white has been rubbed in them. Your eye goes up to balcony after balcony. The courtyard itself was filled with ferns and flowers of all sorts, small trees, sculptures from ancient Rome and a quintet of young people playing flutes. There was the scent of the flowers and the earth. There are mysterious shadows and the lovely cacophony of people talking. It had the magic of a palace in Venice long years ago where you were surrounded by beauty, elegance and light.

In the courtyard, the quintet played baroque music, while on a balcony, an oboist played modern solos.

We walked up the marble stairs into the Dutch Room, a room I’ve visited since my twenties.  There’s a self-portrait of Rembrandt which he painted when he was twenty-three.  Rembrandt wears a dashing hat and cloak. His black eyes are full of wonder, mischief and surprise. Nowadays Rembrandt’s surprised because instead of looking across the Dutch Room at another of his paintings, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, he looks at empty frame. On the morning of March 18th, 1990, two robbers dressed as policemen bound and gagged the guards and stole thirteen artworks including “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and also Vermeer’s “The Concert”.

We visited many of my favorite paintings: Titian’s “Europa” showing Zeus as a bull flying off with Europa on his back, Botticelli’s “The Tragedy of Lucretia” and John Singer Sargent’s El Jeleo, which is so alive you can almost hear the Spanish music.

Everything that night was astonishingly beautiful. The voices, the people, the paintings, the scent of the garden, music and sculpture everywhere. We joined several hundred people in the new wing for a delicious, inventive supper.  At quarter to eight Linda and I climbed to the new concert hall, which is shaped like a tall box with seats on all four sides. We were on the third of four tiers. The stage floor level had two rows of seats and each upper tier just a single row of red seats.

Before the concert began, Ann Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, welcomed us all. She was greeted with a great ovation, for this new building was Ann Hawley’s vision. Hawley struggled long and brilliantly and to date has raised one hundred and forty five of the one hundred and eighty million-dollar goal.

The third tier was high and we looked down on the Borromeo String Quartet. Surprisingly, each of the members of the quartet had a laptop instead of musical sheets. They played Schoenberg’s String Quartet No2, Opus 10. The music for my untutored ear was freeing, strange and full of sharp shadows. The soprano, Mary Elizabeth MacKensie, sang, “I feel the breeze from another planet.” Listening to the music I had the feeling that Schoenberg was exploring something we haven’t yet caught up with.

The second half of the program was Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-Flat Major. Amazingly, Mendelssohn composed this when he was sixteen. Eight musicians played violin, viola and cello. The music, as the program said, “portrays Mendelssohn’s talent for painting music dappled with light and shadow.” It was playful and it builds and builds and builds. At the end there was an explosion of applause.

We descended the stairs after the concert and again were greeted with waiters this time holding trays of champagne and—and platters of warm donut holes.  The warm donut holes were genius!

Before we went out into the cold night, I ducked into the men’s room and I heard someone saying the Patriot’s had scored two touchdowns. I liked that because Isabella Stewart Gardner would attend the Boston Symphony concerts wearing a headband bearing the words, “Oh You Red Sox.” (In red letters, of course.)

We in Boston are so enriched by two wonderful artists–Isabella Stewart Gardner and Ann Hawley.

Christchurch, New Zealand December 7, 2011

Posted by jayocallahan in Adventures.
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Have you ever walked into a city and found all silent? Last Sunday night Linda and I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand. We walked downtown and aside from a few Japanese tourists there was not a soul. There was a fence around much of the downtown area, which is called the Red Zone. It was a tall wire fence you could look through. The restaurants were closed, as were the shoe shops and clothing stores and offices. No one was serving soup, pizza or coffee or buying newspapers. We could not see a single human being. No doubt there was a cat or two and mice, but we didn’t see even those. There had been a great earthquake in February that had shaken the downtown and miles and miles beyond. We turned to go back to our bed and breakfast and the sun was setting so there was a lovely yellow glow over all this eerie silence. Six hundred buildings had been taken down and we heard another six hundred had to be taken down, and thousands and thousands of homes were destroyed. It was like a war zone. Sad.

The next day we went back and found a small shopping area. A single store like the old Jordan Marsh or Filenes had reopened. The windows were filled with story scenes like Peter Pan. They were like the Christmas windows of years gone by at Jordan Marsh. And in this little area there were coffee shops, clothing stores and appliance stores that were open. They all looked bright. We finally realized the stores were the great steel containers used on ships. Part of the steel was cut away and glass was put in and the containers were painted orange, red, green, blue and black. Some of them were stacked one on top of the other. People flocked to these and to the kind of Jordan Marsh store. It was heartening to see these people coming back after such a devastating earthquake. There was a great sense of life and hope.

Moments in Africa November 1, 2011

Posted by jayocallahan in Adventures.
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Elephant in Kruger Park

A breeze that frees us as we ride in an open-air van through the Kruger National Park in Africa. I sit feeling the warm breeze and have no responsibilities other than to feel the breeze and I must repeat this to myself over and over and over, since it is my tendency to carry invisible worries. I often carry the past as if it were great rocks in a sack on my back. But in the breeze I let go of the sack. I imagine being as empty as I was before I was born. Empty and free. I am empty and let go of all of the past and the present and the future.
What was I before I was born? I was not. I was not even free for I was not, though perhaps I was in the mind of God. Sitting here in the breeze as we move along in the van looking for elephants and lions, I am free in the breeze. Now we pull over to watch a giraffe only a few feet away. The giraffe is the most elegant of creatures; the giraffe walks with an ease, a grace, a fluidity in which there is no haste. It is a royal creature. We move along now in the breeze again, and the grasses are blond and a couple of feet high and I’m drawn to the grasses. They remind me of the high grasses in Wyoming just two weeks before. Imagine coming home and people saying, “What did you like?” I liked the grasses. I liked the breeze and the grasses. They were the best.

Safari Van

On another day in Johannesburg we go into a cathedral. It has a high ceiling and it’s crowded with people who are beautifully dressed. We have stumbled on a birthday celebration and mass for Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu. Years ago I was briefly in South Africa and it was a time full of fear and danger for all blacks. But now there is freedom. There is trouble, there is danger, but there is freedom. The atmosphere in the cathedral is electric. It’s a mixture of blacks and whites. You can feel their joy in what’s happened, and they focus their joy on Desmond Tutu. There are times when the African dancers get up and sing and dance and Desmond Tutu himself dances. Tutu speaks and he laughs and giggles and we all sing Happy Birthday.

In the pew to Linda’s left there are two very beautiful young black African women. At the end of the ceremony Linda exchanges a few words. The African women each hug her. We feel like dear friends although we don’t even know one another.

Dinner on the Train

Dinner on the Train

Africa. We are on a night train in Africa. We sit in our compartment and Africa seems endless. There are endless mountains and vineyards. It gets to be night and there is a full moon. We sleep and we tumble on into the night in Africa. We wake and say to ourselves, Africa, we’re in Africa.

We might just as well be in a movie for all is done so well. Linda and I are escorted to table number three in the dining car. Millie is the name of the man in charge of the dining car. He has a great broad front. He is blustery but courteous. He says he has been in this job twenty years. Africa. Africa. One night in Africa the moon is sufficiently low that suddenly there is blackness and stars above us, the African night sky. Two things I had wanted to do was to see the stars against the black sky in Africa, and to stand at the edge of the Cape of Good Hope and watch the swirly, wild seas and imagine those sailors the last many hundreds of years who have braved the seas. And imagine also the ships that have been torn apart and gone down and all those sailors who we will never know crying out and gone, they’re gone on the wild Cape of Good Hope. Africa, free, we are in Africa. We are in Africa.

Let’s Be Open to Possibilities for Peace May 4, 2011

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I’ve been reading Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, online. A columnist, Gideon Levy, wrote an article recently on leaf blowers. Levy said that leaf blowers would soon be banned in Jerusalem by law. Levy went on to say Israelis are upset by leaf blower noise but are not upset by the fact that the Africans who will be sweeping the streets will be paid substandard wages. He also said Israelis are not upset that Israel is a brutal occupying power but are upset by the noise of leaf blowers.

Levy expressed his opinion. I rarely hear or read anything critical of Israeli government policy in the US press. But this is a time to speak up. There may be a chance for peace. Levy wrote on May 1st about the two Palestinian camps uniting, “Why is it that every time there appears to be a chance for positive change, Israel . . . is quick to hunker down beside its rejectionism. Why?”

Levy is clearly frustrated with Israel and the US being so quick to reject any chance for peace. He concluded his May 1st article saying, “The days go by, a year passes, but the song remains the same.” Rejectionism.

It’s time to be more open to the possibility of peace.

A Challenging Performance Space February 17, 2011

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Last week I was in Long Beach, California to tell my story FORGED IN THE STARS to a NASA gathering called Project Management Challenge 2011.

I arrived a day early and was astounded to see the place where I would tell my story. It was like a vast warehouse. There were to be 1,500 people to be sitting at round tables, twelve to a table, which meant the people in the very back so far back that they would see only tiny figures up on the stage.

I calmed down a bit when I had my tech rehearsal in the afternoon. The sound people were very warm and knew their business well. The manager of the building was willing to turn off half of the lights. He was unwilling to make it totally dark because that could be a big safety problem. I was to perform the following morning and relaxed by going to a pizza place across the street. I felt very welcomed there. I had my spaghetti with clam sauce and talked to the manager who had become my friend the day before and I was able to sleep well.

The next morning the NASA people arrived in the vast space at seven thirty in the morning. There were talks and then a panel and then finally at eight forty in the morning I was introduced by Dr. Ed Hoffman. He agreed to ask people to stand up and stretch. That was wise so as he introduced me they could all stretch and move and then it was turned over to me. The lights were turned down a bit and that was a signal that something different was happening. I began the story and as I began to relax I realized the people in this vast room were listening. There was a great sense of quiet. A strange thing happens to a performer. Something inside seems to grow so that even people in the very back seemed well within reach. It’s a strange mystery that a power just overtakes one.

At the end I was delighted of course with a standing ovation but even more delighted to talk with Buzz Aldrin who was the second person to step foot on the moon. Lewis Peach who’s been a great help arranging all my NASA performances, told me Buzz had been weeping during some of the story.

Buzz is a very warm man. He’s tan and gives no sense of being eighty years old. He was telling me about a science fiction story he’s creating and in addition to that he told me about books he’s writing and lectures he’s thinking about. Here’s this man who went to MIT and became the second person to step on the moon and is still delighted to be alive and creating.

I left Long Beach a little sad because I was leaving warmth and blue sky behind but I was excited that this challenge turned into a wonderful experience.

Powerful Voices February 15, 2011

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Elizabeth Bradford, one of the great figures in Marshfield, Massachusetts lived to be over a hundred. She had a deep powerful voice and I imagine it had the resource of Samuel Johnson’s.

I like to think of the unusual voices I’ve heard through my life. My mother had a ringing voice. She used the rhythms of language in an extraordinary way. She would lift up her hand and a single word would be like the beginning of an opera. My father’s voice was a charcoal voice. My dad’s handwriting was precise and elegant and he used words in the same way, but his voice was more dramatic than his writing. He was a natural actor.

I’ll never forget President Kennedy’s inaugural address. It was on a cold winter day. Kennedy looked so young and vigorous and his cut into that cold air in a thrilling way. Kennedy, like my parents, had the sense of the drama of language. As Kennedy gave the speech there was a sense that he loved doing it, he loved the drama of being President, of being in front of a great crowd. Beginning. In a sense this was his music.

I remember reading that before Kennedy’s great Berlin speech, he was saying to the general that the speech he was giving was dull. In the short time before arriving Kennedy had changed the speech. After he gave the Berlin speech he said to Kenny O’Donnell, “We’ll never have another day like this.”

Martin Luther King’s words ring out through our lives. He of course came from a tradition of black preachers. He reminded us that words can lift us up. In the case of both Kennedy and King they were in a sense political opera at its best. Both of those speeches were given out in the open. There was no opera house to contain them. Instead the ceiling was the sky, which seemed so right. Both of them calling us to go beyond the ordinary, to be daring, to laugh, to be open, to be alive.

Ah the voices that ring out through our lives.