Thursday, August 7, 2014

It Takes a Village to be Creative

Late last year I wrote a post about five creative communities: Shakespeare’s theatrical troupe, the Duke Ellington bans, Disney studios (back in the day but, I suppose, now as well), the group that made Apocalypse Now, and the glory years in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo. None of them are freestanding communities, of course, nor do we think of them as communities at all. They’re just groups. One of them was assembled for a specific project and then disbanded, others were relatively stable for a period of years. But all of them were very creative.

One thing in particular that interests me, though I didn't discuss it in that post, is group size. There's a sociological literature on that subject which I've looked at a bit. For example, a study done some years ago showed that Congressional committees charged with reporting out legislation tended to have half a dozen members or so. If the end product was just a report, then the committee might be 10 or a dozen. A different literature has grown up around the size of villages. It seems that once a village grows to about 200 or 300 members it tends to fission. Why?

I'm guessing it took a village to make Apocalypse Now and I'm not talking about the Philippine village that seemed to have more or less gotten adopted. But I'm just guessing on the basis of what I've read. I've never been behind the scenes on a movie production. Obviously there are different phases with different requirements and production on AN was unusually strung out, etc. I'd guess there were a bunch of extras who were only around for a day or three or so; they don't count. Neither does the electrician who was called in on a specialty gig for a day. And so forth.

But between ongoing on-camera talent and the various support crews and behind-the-camera talent, there must have been a village's worth of people doing production work in the Philippines. And within that group you had, what? an “Ellington's band” worth of people with their fingers in the creative pie.

SUNY’s English Department had, I believe, about 75 faculty during the glory years, plus a rotating cast of visitors and then the graduate students and undergraduates. Whereas the AN village was assembled to produce one piece of work, the SUNY English Department operated along different lines, training students at undergraduate and graduate levels, and supporting faculty research. The glory years lasted a decade or so, but the department didn’t come from nothing nor did it devolve into nothing.

So it had a different kind of life from the AN village, and both were different from Shakespeare’s company (The King’s Men, which outlasted Shakespeare himself), and Ellington’s band (which outlasted Ellington). These two groups were more focused than the English Department, but not so single-minded as AN. Of these four, three were dominated by a single man, at least for several decades, while the fourth, the English Department, was never dominated by anyone. The fifth of these groups, Disney Studios, was larger than any of the others and the creative work was dominated by Disney himself, though he worked indirectly through his various employees.

If I had to rank them according to variety of personnel, I’d say that the Ellington band and Shakespeare’s company had the least variety: a presiding eminence at the helm, then a bunch of players (actors or musicians), and then support personnel. The English department was larger and a bit more diverse than those two, and then Apocalypse Now, still larger and more diverse. The Disney Studio was the largest, and it was probably more diverse than AN as well.

Regardless of all these details, however, we simply don’t know how these groups functioned, not really. Our thinking about creativity has been dominated by thinking about individuals and, for the most part, still is.

I wonder if any of the consulting companies that service creativity-dependent organizations (e.g. software companies and the like) have a clue about group creativity.

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