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A Conversation About Creativity with Barbara Begley

I hope you have an artist in your life who can give you faith in your own endeavors the way that Barbara Begley does for me. Barbara is constantly hard at work with her own projects and her work as an organizer for Undiscovered Countries, “The Infinite Festival” of new work that so happens to be happening tomorrow (Jan 18) at Bizarre Bushwick (and you should go), but she never gives up asking me about my music even though I’ve never dared to play her a note. After our umpteenth conversation about creativity during which I said, “I’d like to interview you” and “We should record this,” I finally sat down with Barbara at happyfun hideaway and recorded this conversation about collaboration, creative facilitation, and her play-turned-collaborative-graphic novel, Half Lives, which just wrapped a successful Kickstarter campaign.

J: So tell me, it feels like you’re very good at facilitating other people’s work, and I’m wondering about how you balance that with doing your own projects.

B: Frequently, by making them collaborative projects so that they’re actually other people’s art, and that I’m held accountable to someone who’s not myself. It’s is a struggle because they’re different parts of your brain. It feels as though like my brain is so attuned to facilitating other art, that the like making something of my own section is shut off a little, which I don’t like. But largely, the way I have balanced that is by making my projects other people’s projects, by including others as collaborators, or by telling everyone I know about them, externally processing, and stealing moments.

When I was best at it, I made it a ritual. When I wrote Half Lives, the first half of it I wrote on a giant manual typewriter that I carried around with me on days when I would write, because it weighed 20 pounds and I felt like an asshole if I took that out into the world and didn’t write. So I had to do it. It didn’t have Internet. I couldn’t do anything else on it besides write. It was a spectacle. It was loud and a little embarrassing. It was a pain in the ass, so I had to do the thing. I might start doing that again.

J: The version of Half Lives that you’ve been fundraising for is a very collaborative version of this. Has having all those different kinds of creative people involved has changed the project?

B: Yes, it absolutely has changed, but the story, which is what I really care about, has only changed in ways that have made it feel more like what it was always supposed to be. There are explanations for things and back stories for things that I was not aware of. It is a much sadder thing than I thought it was. It is a funnier thing than I thought it was. It’s less white. It’s more expansive. It’s darker. It’s more the thing I wanted to make. All the things that other people have come to me with it, I’ve been like, “oh my God, you’re right.”


A page from the Half Lives graphic novel

“You’re already collaborating with people because you aren’t in a vacuum. And if you were in a vacuum, you wouldn’t make art. There would be nothing to make art about.”

J: I personally prefer to work by myself, to record everything, write everything, arrange everything by myself. And I had a filmmaker boyfriend in college who would tell me, “if you work with other musicians, it will become exponentially better than anything you ever thought it could be on your own.”

B: I don’t know that that’s true for everyone, but it has absolutely been true for me. I encourage you to collaborate with people if and when you meet people who are the people you want to collaborate with. I don’t agree with telling someone to collaborate as prescriptively and simply as that. I’ve also collaborated with people who have fucked ideas up. Sometimes you can have an idea, and then have someone else come in, and have it be a completely unrecognizable idea. And so I don’t recommend those collaborations.

But there is a magical exponential thing that happens when you collaborate with the right people, which also means healthy relationships and boundaries and all that. And that I would argue is already happening in your work. You’re already collaborating with people because you aren’t in a vacuum. And if you were in a vacuum, you wouldn’t make art. There would be nothing to make art about.


Photo of Barbara from the November 2015 Undiscovered Countries, taken by Rebecca Russell

“Dramaturgy feels like looking into the depths of someone’s vulnerability and saying, ‘I see that, I recognize that. I think that’s wonderful. Do you want to bring that out?'”

J: I have a lot more questions about being a creative facilitator vs. being an artist.

B: I also don’t know if I agree with that distinction even though I just said it’s two different parts of the brain. I’ve been applying to grownup jobs, but the problem seems to be that they think of the role of facilitator/logistics person…

J: As completely separate from the art.

B: Which is not ever how it feels when it feels good.

J: What does it feel like when it feels good?

B: It feels like sex when it feels good. Dramaturgy feels like sex when it feels good. Dramaturgy feels like looking into the depths of someone’s vulnerability and saying, “I see that, I recognize that. I think that’s wonderful. Do you want to bring that out?”

J: I feel like that’s what you do when you talk about seeing people’s artistic dreams and trying to bring them to life. What does an idea look like when you see an idea in a person?

B: There is a particular face that seems to be a universal face that people get when you say the thing that is true about their art that they hadn’t thought of or they hadn’t realized that anyone else was going to think of.

J: What does that face look like? Can you describe it?

B: There’s just this moment of pause. It just is this really lovely moment of vulnerability with no weakness. Frequently there’s a bit of a questioning thing in that, of, “Did you actually just say that?” People get very here with you when you do that, in the way that some do when you lay claim to a hidden insecurity and tell them it’s okay. You have to develop trust with people and know who you can say things to and who you can’t, and when it’s the right moment.

J: Can you tell when an idea wants to be nudged versus when it’s not ready?

B: That is a tricky one and one that I’m not super certain of right now. That is one of the many reasons why I really do that kind of work primarily and best for people I am already somewhat close with, because it sort of feels like the non-bullshit interpretation of reading someone’s tarot. You have this set of things in front of you, you know these things about the person’s life, and you can put those things together to intuit a thing that that person might need to hear at this moment. In my experience, it’s very rarely an issue of whether or not someone is ready to hear that thing, but an issue of how, in what context, do you have to give that note. If someone is asking you for feedback, then they know. If someone isn’t asking you for feedback, then you have to back off, which I’m not as good at doing because I’m really pushy. I just want to give you notes and make it better.

J: Can you recognize how your input as a creative facilitator changes work? Do you recognize your mark on pieces that you’ve been involved in?

B: Frequently, it just looks like things having a through line where they didn’t before. I come out of it with a better experience and I talk to people and they also come out of it with a good experience and I get to take a little bit of credit for that. I have worked on pieces of art where I’ve tried my damnedest and never felt like I’ve gotten through to someone, and the thing continues to be problematic and full of holes on a fundamental level. And I’m embarrassed. Fundamental problems I can only do so much with because if the entire reason for being of a thing is not thought through, and then when you think it through you realize it’s not actually the idea that you thought it was, and it is in fact could be several great ideas but that will never be reconciled, that’s really tricky.

“That the way to approach art is how do you see, what does it make you feel. Which isn’t a value judgment in any way. It’s a very personal subjective experience. I love seeing dance for this reason, because dance is something I have a very hard time breaking down intellectually, and I just have to have an experience.”

J: How do you maintain your dignity in that moment?

B: Frequently those projects will be someone’s first project ever. That person made a thing and then felt good about it. And at the end of the day, that is actually enough. I also have to remember that ultimately my own experience as an audience member is not the only valid experience, so if I don’t think a thing works, that means it didn’t work for me, that doesn’t mean it didn’t work for anyone. Really the core lesson of the first year of college was drilled into us is that the way to approach art is how do you see, what does it make you feel. Which isn’t a value judgment in any way. It’s a very personal subjective experience. I love seeing dance for this reason, because dance is something I have a very hard time breaking down intellectually, and I just have to have an experience. I have to remind myself sometimes not to break stuff down and discount it, but just go what did you see, how did it make you feel, what did it make you think about.

January Sci Fi with Undiscovered Countries takes place tomorrow, January 18 at 8pm at Bizarre Bushwick, 12 Jefferson St, Brooklyn, NY. Find more info about tomorrow’s event here.

Published in Inspiration

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