The curious alchemy of creativity
By BOB FOULKES
My son and I were recently invited to attend a table read for an episode of The Simpsons, the iconic, first-ever animated, prime-time television series that follows the fortunes and follies of the Simpson family.
The Simpsons has redefined television success. Launched in 1989, it is the longest running series ever with more than 500 episodes over 24 seasons.It is broadcast around the world and has spawned business spinoffs and generated hundreds of millions of dollars for Fox Television. The Simpsons Movie alone grossed more than $500 million.
We witnessed creativity in action, a front row seat in this crucial stage of the alchemy of spinning flax into gold. Gold was spun that day as the actors voiced the words of Homer, Lisa, Marge and Bart. They spun magic, laughter and even joy for us all.
Creativity is on a lot of people’s minds these days. It is an ethereal subject, bringing to mind the “ah-ha” moments of Einstein and the crazed frenetic madness of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the Disney classic. Books like Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, Richard Florida’s The Rise of The Creative Class, Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow are trying to understand, capture and harness the elusive nature of creativity.
An Action Canada task force undertook a serious study of how to capture creativity as national policy; the goal was to expand creativity’s powerful alchemy in the service of Canada’s economy. Their conclusions are summarized in a report called Creativity Unleashed.
The task force makes two observations:
- The western world has eclipsed the industrial economy, shot past the information economy, is well into the knowledge economy and is moving at blinding speed into the creative economy. We’re not the only country to recognize creativity as a source of growth. Even the United Nations has embraced the idea that creativity can fuel economic growth and make the difference between the success and failure of national economic strategies.
- Over the past 30 years, despite significant public investment in policies to foster innovation, Canada has lagged behind other countries in successfully implementing strategies to harness creativity for national economic growth.
The task force concludes that creative processes can be expanded with appropriate investments in people, places and processes. The authors make several recommendations on how goverments may promote creativity. For anyone interested in the public policy implications of the alchemy of creativity, it makes good reading.
Here is the “ah-ha” moment for me. The Simpsons is exactly what they were looking at; it’s creativity in action. Creativity involves making something out of nothing. It is about the alchemy of gathering some very thoughtful, quirky, wild and crazy people in a room, then some mysterious process spits out a weekly episode of a program that more than seven million people still choose to find the time to watch. That, dear friends, is alchemy — turning base metals into gold.
The Simpsons is driven by writers; they are the sorcerers who snatch ideas out of the ether, weave them into episodes and link episodes into a hit program. The table read is a next to final stage in a magical creative process. The dozen or so writers, led by a cat-herder known as the show-runner, work months to build a script that is packed with humour, commentary, observation and insight about the American experience and the whole human condition. Insightful, yes; funny, always, and it hits you about 20 times a minute.
To ensure it works, the almost-final script is submitted to a table read. The actors, stars among loyal followers, gather around a table at the Fox studios in Culver City, just outside Los Angeles, and read through the script. The privileged guests are invited to watch and listen, the surrogate audience for seven million future viewers. We understand our enormous burden and follow the script carefully, laughing out loud as we would at home. As our reward, we get to keep the script and shamelessly solicit autographs from actors and writers. A few days later, after whatever rewrites are deemed necessary, the script is locked down, a final read is done and the product is shipped out for final voice recording and animation. Six months later, it is beamed into the homes of millions of North Americans.
It was a blinding flash of the obvious but here was creativity at work, spinning ideas into cold hard cash that even the evil trolls (read: non-creative executives) at the Fox network had to respect. The execs don’t quite get it, but the laughter emanating from the average American home every Sunday night proves that it works.
So, without belabouring the point, creativity is crucial. Fostering creativity should be a serious goal of national economic success. We see evidence of enormous success all round. Facebook, YouTube, and Google didn’t exist a few years ago, yet now they have market capitalizations bigger than most Fortune 500 blue chips. They are all outlets for creativity at the most personal level.
Anyone who has decided the North American economy is down for the count should think again. If I had to choose between truly innovative, creative and entrepreneurial people over those who are regimented, rigid, and conformist, I’d go with the crazy, creative types every time.
Besides, if the table read was any indication, it’s a lot more fun spending time with the crazy folks like the Simpsons writers. My son, a lawyer who has spent his fair share of time locked in conference rooms with clients who collectively represent the antithesis of creativity, agrees.