Essays: Ragatz on Creativity

[Steven Ragatz posted the foloowing in the spring on '92 -- the topic of discussion was "Creativity in Juggling": setting your own style, writing your own routines, etc. Some comments by Christopher Majka have been added, too. -mpg]

It is easy to let the hours linger by philosophizing about creativity.
But for an artist who wishes to create rather than simply be creative,
talk is simply talk.  What we want is material.

It is very difficult to find style.  One can't simply say "Today I am
going to figure out my style."  Style develops through the years of
work, usually without provocation.  Although once in a while there are
style choices to be made, like always wearing black spandex or always
working with chrome etc., I think that style can be looked upon as a
synonym for personality.  Only through gradual modification can any
lasting change be noticed.  One develops style through one's
personality and vice versa.

A performance style can grow out of a performance personality as well.
Luckily for all of us, this is theater, and we are allowed to act on
stage.  Just because you are a computer dweeb in real life doesn't
mean that you have to be one in your show.  On the contrary, theater
allows the performer to change personality and adopt style changes at
will.  Hey, it's acting.

If you want a unique style, build one from a unique personality.
Since most of us are basically boring people in the real world, make
up an interesting personality on stage.  If you build a style based on
this hyper-personality, hey! you've got an original act!  (i.e.. $$$$)
Go ahead and use all the old juggling tricks and props you want.
Placed in a new context, it will all be different.

Judging from the tone of the posts so far, I would guess that folk are
interested in writing original juggling routines and choreography.
This relates to a few seconds of that unnecessarily pompous "workshop"
than Mr. M gave in Montreal.  If you were listening VERY closely, Mr.
M mumbled something about what he calls "THE Process" and which I call
"A process."  One's process develops in tandem with style.

People who talk "process" are really simply talking about the creative
act itself.  It is an artistic way of describing a formula for
writing.  Rather than looking at individual tricks or props, process
dictates that you look at the way that you look at tricks or props.
By changing your point of view, you change the finished product.  (I
consider this "point of view" to be synonymous with "premise").

	M.r M's premise for the crystal ball routine involves things like:

	1. I will never close my hand around the ball.

	2. The ball is a dying friend.

	3. The ball is my daughter.

	(one of 2. or 3. - it wasn't clear which...)

	4. The ball is the focus of the piece.

These are the things that he called "rules."  One uses rules (premise)
to help guide the creative process.  Without guidelines, the
possibilities are endless and subsequently daunting.  (For the
computer dweebs: it is important to restrict the domain before you can
express an automata.  * Wow, am I embarrassed! *)

It is important to realize the distinction between the process that
creates material and the material itself.  If you are having troubles
finding original stuff, maybe it is because you are not using an
original premise.  If you play by the same rules as everyone else you
end up playing the same game.  If you want to stand out - play a
different game altogether.

I said in a previous posting that I would make some practical
suggestions about developing and creating new and original juggling
tricks and choreography.  All of the theater jargon aside, there is a
certain beauty and grace to be found through juggling.  To develop
aesthetically pleasing tricks is the desire and bane of most of us.

Nothing makes my creative muses clam up faster that sitting down and
saying "O.K., let's write a new routine - NOW!"  Unfortunately, the
Greek patrons never seem to be listening when I need them.  Deadlines
and bills dictate that I cannot simply sit around and wait for the
earth shaking inspiration that will grow into a sellable routine.  The
biggest trick is to be able to put yourself into a situation where you
are able to create and write material.

About this time writers block sets in with me.  It is also at this
time that I must force myself to keep working and to find something.
If you start with an idea, great! go with it as your initial impulse
directed. But if you are a blank void, as I often am, and you need to
develop material there is still hope...

Here are some things that I have used to write juggling tricks and

1.  Work with a new prop.  i.e. if a prop manufacturer builds one -
don't use it.  Write a juggling act around an unusual prop.  In a show
last year, four of us had a 15 minute routine with two folding chairs.
There was some pretty impressive juggling in that show, but many
people liked the chair routine best.  Obviously we didn't "juggle" the
chairs, but we explored all of the things that chairs could be used as
(giant scissors, a gun, bull horns, etc.) and we wrote an improv based
piece around them.  We wrote this piece using "Rounds."

2.  Work with an old prop in a new way.  Make observations about the
prop.  As jugglers we are devoted and driven by our props.  The prop
is usually the focal point leaving the juggler to stand in the
background.  If this is the structure of the routine, that prop had
better be doing something pretty interesting!  Otherwise it's

Finding a new way to use a prop can mean many things.  You can apply
certain restrictions that lead to tricks or choreography.  For
example, I am working on a new club routine.  I have never had very
interesting three club tricks.  I decided that I wanted a different
class of trick that I hadn't seen many people do at festivals.  Based
on an observation of baton twirling, I set out to come up with three
club tricks where the rotation of the club continues in the same
direction.  With this restriction, I found several combinations that
give me a "wheel" affect with three clubs.  This look will eventually
lead to choreography that should compliment the visual of these

Another way to find new ways to use old props is to use them as a
different prop.  Throw out all old preconceptions and manipulate the
prop as if it were something else.  I wrote a club rolling routine at
a workshop a couple of years back.  It was a five minute routine that
used six juggling clubs.  The difference was that none of them ever
got thrown.  The routine was based on the observation that when you
roll a club on the floor, it makes an arc.  One can shower clubs in a
circle by rolling them.  The title of the piece was "Clockwork" and it
had various sounds of machines clanking and clanging playing in the
background.  The routine was well received.  Several people commented
how it had a hypnotic quality.

3.  Alter an old prop.  Take an old standard and modify it.  How about
a three handled club?  A four bladed devil stick?  A square ring?  Or
how about eight sided cigar boxes?  All of these props would be
considered very unusual at the national fest.  There not very unusual
here in Bloomington.  I have all of them in my closet...  This is one
of my favorite ways to come up with new juggling tricks.  If you have
seen my diablo routine, you will know why.  (That's one idea that I
STILL think is really cool!)

4.  Just be so *&$*@^%! good that you can do things that others can't.
Good luck with this one.  This ain't my specialty.

Here are some suggestions for choreography.  I must admit that I have
only written a couple of juggling routines that I would consider
successful choreographically.  This one is still hard for me.

1.  Make a wise music choice.  Just because YOU like to listen to it
in your free time doesn't mean that the audience wants to hear it in a
show.  Use music that is easy to move to.  As far as I am concerned,
hard rock and juggling don't mix in performance.  When I see acts in
competition that use popular rock tunes I usually find the same
thing... I like the music better than I like the act.  I practice with
QUEEN blasting on 250 watt speakers.  That is great juggling music.
But I would never go on stage with !One Vision.!  I could only dream
that I would be that good!  "%&*$^@ the juggler - TURN UP THE
TOONES!!"  I like the CARS so much I never remember any of the Mills
family act...

2.  Practice the blocking without juggling.  Video tape your routine
without props.  Ask yourself if it is interesting without the
juggling.  If not, the choreography is lame.  You don't need to be a
dancer, you just need to think like one.  (Smoke lots of cigs and diet
continually...)  Make strong movement choices - and commit to them.
If you want to do some trick with one leg in second at a point, then
really make that leg straight and with a strong point. Don't be
embarrassed about dance - just be bold.

3.  Actually write the blocking.  Don't simply improvise.  This will
work in a pinch but you need to know what you are doing and when you
are doing it to be really confident with your routines.

These are some blocking suggestions that I would make after seeing so
many juggling competitions:

Use the entire stage space.  Move all around the stage.  Take
advantage of different places on stage.  Up stage for big tricks, down
front for the really good tight combinations.  Stay stage right for
awhile.  You don't have to stick center stage all of the time.

Don't be symmetric.  Avoid the center - left - center - right - center
stuff.  Diagonals are great!  Don't just stick with the "T" blocking
(stage left, stage right and down center - watch the juniors tape...)

Use different levels.  Juggle over head and down low.  Sit on stage or
lie down.  Jump in the air!  (For being artists who deal with images
of flight, jugglers sure are a grounded bunch!  GET THOSE FEET OFF OF

These are my pet peeves of juggling choreography.  I have been guilty
of all of them...

Don't do everything with that feet-shoulder-width-apart-arms-relaxed-
knees-slightly-bent posture.  It is a great posture for juggling but
it is lifeless and ordinary.  Vary the poses for each static trick.
Use the transitional tricks to move around the stage and the static
tricks for the "picture tricks."

Don't always face the audience.  Let's see angles and some back.  A
performers back side can make a very dramatic touch to an otherwise
plain trick.  Hey, remember "The Kiss!"

For *#&$^%@ sake, choreograph HONEST looking bows.  You must expect
applause.  Don't step on the audience's chance to express their
pleasure.  Don't be in such a hurry to get on with the show that you
ignore the audience.  Applause is not a gratuity.  It is the
performer's time to be attentive and let the audience express
something.  Stepping on your applause is not only awkward but it is in
some respects rude.  When you take applause, be truly grateful.  Learn
to express that feeling.  It takes acting but it comes naturally if
you let it.  Nothing puts me off after a good act as poor bows.  Make
sure that your bow doesn't become trite and uninspired.  When you take
your applause, take it as YOU.  Don't blow it off with a little head
bob and a cocky smirk.  Practice bows in front of a mirror.  Make them
look real, because once you have the rush of performance, they will be
motivated and confident.

If you use a prop stand - Please do something interesting when you
walk to and from the stand.  That is dead time.  Don't let it be.

I use these rules as guidelines to help direct my writing process.
None of them are very sophisticated, nor do they warrant such blotted
titles as "The Process", but they are helpful to me when I get stuck.
I hope that they are useful to others.


Christopher Majka adds these comments to Steve's essay:

  If you were listening VERY closely, Mr. M mumbled something about what
  he calls "THE Process" and which I call "A process."  One's process
  develops in tandem with style...

  People who talk "process" are really simply talking about the creative
  act itself.  It is an artistic way of describing a formula for
  writing.  Rather than looking at individual tricks or props, process 
  dictates that you look at the way that you look at tricks or props.
  By changing your point of view, you change the finished product.  (I
  consider this "point of view" to be synonymous with "premise").

'The process' that Michael referred to in his workshop at the IJA
convention is a concept considerably employed in the arts,
particularly the performing arts such as dance. It is not quite just
another way of referring to the creative act itself or a way of
describing an artistic formula although, in part, it includes both
these notions.

By 'process' artists mean embarking on a creative exploration, be that
with an idea, a prop, a technique or even an approach itself (e.g. the
collaborative process). The point of this is to, in an as
unstructured, non-judgmental way as possible, to discover and explore
the artistic potential along a certain channel -- playing,
experimenting, tapping into your own creativity as it meets the
conditions you have set for yourself. Implicit in process is that this
may or may not result in anything which actually 'works' (in terms,
lets say of performance potential). You could come up with nothing.

Let's say you're really interested in corkscrews (or crystal balls!).
You spend weeks (or months!) exploring the shape, movement, balance,
etc., etc. of corkscrews and in the end (although you've learned a lot
about corkscrews) you might decide that there's really nothing here
which is remotely performable. Or on the other hand you might discover
something *really* brilliant that no one has ever thought of before
(witness toothbrushes, or toilet plungers!). Either result is O.K.

In any event, having gone through 'the process' you have learned
something important about both yourself and the creative process. This
knowledge will help you with your future work. This is why Michael
refers to the risk and the uncertainty of 'the process.' If you are
really faithful to it (as opposed to just being desperate to come up
with a new trick for a gig on the weekend), you never know if you'll
come up with something or not. However, and here is the *really*
important part of this, this is the only way you can develop your
creativity (as opposed to your technique). Imitating some one else's
trick or routine may teach you that trick or routine, but so what?
You're not expressing anything new and next time you need to do
something new you're still no better off.

Michael talks about there being no way to short circuit this step and
he is right. Ultimately if you don't dig within yourself for *some*
originality (for of course we cannot be completely original, we always
owe a debt to the many, many practicioners of our art who preceded us)
then you cheat yourself and this applies not only to solo, mainstage
artists like Michael Moschen, but to everyone doing school shows or
busking on a street corner.

Ultimately this creative exploration, trusting the process, does
manifest in both the work and the performance quality of the
performer. Consider some of the finer juggling performers, for
example, Michael Moshen, Michael Menes, Peter Davidson, the Flying
Karamazov Brothers, Sean Gandini, Francis Brunn, Booby May, Gregory
Popovich, etc. They are all very technically capable. They all have
been inspired by and learned from others. But what distinguishes them
as performers is that they have all explored and tapped into their own
creativity and it shows, both in their work and the quality of their

I have no idea if or how this relates to "restricting the domain
before one can express an automata," but maybe there is some

Essays: Ragatz on Creativity / Juggling Information Service /
© 1996 Juggling Information Service. All Rights Reserved.