I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art and expression, and some of the fears that actors have as we try to explore the things that inspire us. There's so much of an emphasis on doing “good” work, so much energy put into work that can propel you “to the next level.” I’ve started wondering -- when did we stop creating art because it was fun to be expressive? To tell stories? To pretend to be someone else, and show off these characters to our family and friends?
I’m at the point where many of my friends are starting to have children, and one common element you find in each parents’ home is the refrigerator filled with drawings from their child. Heck, even if you aren’t a parent, if you know children you probably have a piece of artwork hanging on your wall. Or a batch of photos from a child’s recital. Or a video from a school play. Parents and family members weep happily at the sight of a child expressing him/herself in an artistic way.
Then, at some point, this stops. Parents stop encouraging artistry. Drawings are removed from refrigerators and videos are put in the cabinet (to be pulled out when the child is 16 and bringing her boyfriend to the house for the first time. Oh yeah, we’ve all been there.) What happened? Where did the expression go? I have a theory -- The Age of Reason, that "magical" thing that happens around Age 7, is killing art.
According to Scholastic.com, the Age of Reason is described as:
“Few parents would argue with the observation that children age 6 and younger do not have great control over their feelings and impulses. Nor is your very young child likely to take genuine responsibility for her actions, or heed adults' urging to be considerate of others... It is not until the age of 7, give or take a year or so, that your child's conscience begins to mature enough to guide her actions...It’s been called the "Age of Reason," since these children have a newly internalized sense of right and wrong... At 7 "plus or minus one," your child begins to problem-solve in a new way, using reason rather than pure intuition. He can separate fantasy from reality; and so can be expected to know and tell the truth... At about 7, fears are no longer of monsters, but of real people, and most of all of not being liked, being different, and risking loneliness. Pride and shame are real now too. Real, rather than simply imagined achievement, enhances self-esteem...”
Not only do children lose the ability to fantasize without embarrassment, but it’s also the people around them who change their viewpoints on their children’s artistic impulses. At an early stage a child singing out of tune is adorable; at another point the child is hushed and told not to sing. Children and adults alike stop painting pictures because they tell themselves, “I’m not good at it,” and forget that creating art is about expression, not about excellence.
“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.” -- Thomas Szasz
Of course, if one wants to make money at an artistic profession, that’s when excellence becomes important. But in the striving for excellence, many actors forget that joy of creating and playing for fear that it won’t live up to some standard that world has set for them.
So, I am challenging myself and the artists around me to nurture their inner artist and beg it to come out to play. Find an environment where you can practice being expressive and go hog wild. Pretend to be bigger and badder than you ever dreamed possible. Will yourself into a new reality that gives you a visceral charge. Fight the Age of Reason and awaken your imagination in the way we did as children. This is what we do at The Seeing Place, encouraging our artists to fully live out a situation on stage night to night, without fear of making mistakes or going too far.
As a side note: it’s also around the age of 7 that we stop unabashedly seeking an audience. When’s the last time you ever saw an adult jump into a crowded room, do a little two step, then chime, “Ta-da!” to elicit applause? For once, I want to do something silly and have a bunch of adults exclaim, “Yayyyyy!”
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons