Flex Your Head Mental Aerobics: Exercises for Inducing Creativity Non-Spontaneously

NON SPONTANEOUS CREATIVITY: Sounds like an oxymoron, right? Wrong. All the methods described in the previous chapter can be used to induce creative thought, as well as save creative thoughts acquired earlier. Besides which there are other more active things you can do to get your mind working.

DRAWING ON THE CREATIVE IMAGINATION: Betty Edwards, the author best known for her ground breaking book of drawing instruction: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, wrote another great but lesser-known book called Drawing on the Creative Imagination. This book is full of practical exercises for developing creativity, easy to follow by anyone over the age of seven. I recommend you buy it an d read it ASAP. In addition, reading her work has suggested to me a number of crazy ways to tap into your subconscious design talents. They are:

Remember please, these are brain-flexing exercises so they will be strange sounding. Many of these ideas can be done by whole classes or groups at once.

TWENTY QUESTIONS: When thinking about designing costumes for characters in a play, look at each character and answer the following questions:

  • If this character were a car, what car would it be?
  • If this character were a plant, what plant would it be?
  • If this character were a food, what food would it be?
  • If this character were an animal….etc.

You can add as many more questions of this type as you need. Say, for instance, you imagine Bianca in Taming of the Shrew this way, your answers might be: a pink “Mary Kay” Cadillac, a white rhododendron, a strawberry sundae with whipped cream and a cherry, and a white cockapoo. What you’re looking for is a visual image for the character that you can use in their costume design. Depending on how realistic your production is you will use this image literally or only figuratively. Of the above mentioned images for Bianca I feel the sundae works best, and I would probably design her costume to look suggestive of a super sweet dessert, begging to be eaten.


C. Neil Vipperman of Atlanta inadvertently fell upon the “Jetsons” method while working on his MFA at the University of Georgia. He was assigned by his director to do the six “characters” in Six Characters in Search of an Author, as timeless futuristic costumes. At the last minute, after the fabric was bought, and the day before cutting was to start, the director asked that the designs be changed to their original 1920’s period. Staying up all night in a panic, Neil zipped through changing the designs by adapting his “Jetsons”costumes, as we in the UGA costume shop called them, into 1920’s silhouettes. Strange to say these new designs were even better than the ones he worked on for weeks because they contained all the color and shape ideas that the futuristic set had, without distracting shoulder pads and stiffened collars. Working on the show in another period allowed him to extract the essence of each character without being mired in period detail. Adding the period look last in the process let the characters look timeless, while still having an indication of their 1920’s origin. To replicate this process one simply tries to design a show in another period: modern, futuristic, Elizabethan, or whatever. Then later on redesigns the show in the appropriate period, using ideas borrowed from the first designs. This is an especially good method for shows that sometimes seem to be happening in two or more periods at once like Marat/Sade, La Bete, Godspell, All For Love, or Julius Caesar.

WHO’S THIS FABRIC?: This is a good one for a whole costume class to do together. Take out fabric samples for an assortment of fabric colors and textures. Spread them on a table and ask the class to write on slips of paper at least three adjectives describing the sort of person they imagine wearing that fabric. Have them put the slips in piles next to each fabric sample. When everyone is finished read them out loud. Most fabric colors and textures will suggest similar adjectives to most people. These are three lists my class did:

  • Orange Spandex: Young, brainless, annoying, cheerful, energetic.
  • Scruffy Wool Tweed: Old, sick, professorial, tired, educated.
  • Plaid Flannel: Masculine, stable, practical, strong, comfortable.

A few fabrics will give off contradictory images in a group, and this is almost more interesting than the more obvious ones. If you have a person in your class who comes from a different culture, she will likely get different images from the rest of the group. A discussion of different cultural meanings for colors, will inevitably put everyone to thinking about where their own beliefs on color originate.

WALK THIS WAY: Remember the joke in You     ng Frankenstein where “Ay-gor” tells Dr. Frankenstein to “walk this way” i.e., like a limping hunchback? Characters in plays are usually individuals, who should have individual ways of walking. Think like an actor, and try to walk, stand and sit like each character. When you feel yourself inside the body of the character, you will quickly find the “center” of that imaginary person’s body. This is a good cue about the costume’s center of focus, and should also help you to determine the type of shoes necessary. For example, in Guys and Dolls the posture of Adelaide as a wiggling S-curve semi-stripper, pretty well requires she wear heels to help push out her backside and bust:


Costume design for Adelaide in Guys ‘n’ Dolls

This can also be a really great project for a whole costume class: Divide into two groups that switch off. One “performs”while the other watches. The performing group is asked to try to walk like a particular character. The watchers pick a favorite walk from the group that is then demonstrated and discussed with regard to center, posture, and shoes. Then the watching group performs with another character, etc… Until the whole character list has been debated. This is a very good exercise in schools where actor’s and tech/design folks have got into an adversarial position. The actors in class will usually demonstrate their knowledge and ability in physically manifesting the character, and the tech/design folks will have lots of good ideas about how to help the performers in the discussion. It ends up getting them to both bond and improve communication.


This is a similar idea, but easy to do just with pen and paper. Before you start any kind of design drawing, Imagine each character standing, back lit, in a doorway, where all you see is a vague silhouette or lump like shape: Is it hulking, bristling, flowing, top-heavy, bottom-heavy, smooth,skinny, amorphous? Make a series of small rectangles on paper, and in each draw the shape that is suggested to you by that character. Then, as you design, try to incorporate each silhouette into each design.


This was suggested to me by a show where I tried to make costumes that the actors could alter themselves for different characters (for more on this see the section on Omnicostumes). I included in my designs alot of masks on elastic straps (we were doing Much Ado About Nothing, which has lots of masks and mistaken identity in the plot). I gave them to the actors and told them to put them on the body parts that seemed important to their character. Margaret, the oversexed maid asked to have hers stitched to her breasts, Borachio, her boastful lover, wore his as a codpiece, the messenger boy put his on as knee pads, the fashionable and handsome young noblemen, Benedick and Claudio wore theirs as shoulder pads, a pregnant maid wore hers on her belly, the truth-less Don John put his directly covering his heart, and so forth.

Much Ado About Nothing

Body Parts, therefore is where you pick an object, like a mask, or decoration, or something, and pin the tail on the donkey with each character. Ask yourself, what body part is the center of their focus? Put the decoration on that part of your body, and try to move with that part leading the movement. Does it feel and look right? If not, try moving the decoration till the “character” appears to be moving naturally for him/her. Then when you know where the center of that character is, you can design the focal point of the costume to enhance that center. Again, this is fun to do in a group.

DADA CALISTHENICS: This is definitely one to do in a group unless you are very brave. This is pure brain flexing, without any direct connection to doing your designs, but it leaves everyone’s creative batteries recharged. It is also just plain fun. It helps to read Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto 1918 just before commencing. The object of each exercise is to concentrate on engaging in the most absurd and senseless acts possible. If your group is a bit slow, and/or shy, it helps to give each person a piece of paper and ask them to describe the most absurd and senseless act that the group can do. Then you read them out loud and choose a plan of action. Examples my students have thought of are:

  • Go to the Fairbanks, AK airport and put “lei’s” of ice cubes on incoming passengers returning from Hawaii, while singing “Aloha Ohe”.
  • Dressed in gas masks, rubber gloves, lab coats, and sun glasses, enter the women’s toilet, like a panel of industrial experts, inspect each toilet with much flushing, “testing” and fanfare. Then inform all around (and each other) that the toilets have been tested as safe. Stick up huge intimidating signs that say “THERE IS NOTHING WHATSOEVER WRONG WITH THE TOILETS” and “THESE TOILETS ARE SAFE.”
  • Beating drums and dancing in a circle, fling ice cubes in the air while chanting “Snow, SNOW, snow, SNOW!” etc. Then calmly inform onlookers that this ritual sacrifice of ice cubes will ensure snow within the week. Solicit donations of ice cubes from people with soda drinks for the purpose.

You can also, with a suitably deranged group leader or leaders,simply venture out without a plan, and do senseless things: ceremonial presentation of broken coat hangers to important people, children’s games like “Doctor, Doctor, I feel sick” or “Mother may I?”, singing popular song lyrics in Tibetan chant style, falling to the ground and “worshiping” objects of ordinary life like water fountains and trash receptacles, etc. The idea is to get everyone to open their minds to the natural possibilities for absurdity in everyday life, and to see things with new eyes in their daily world. The exhibitionist aspect of the thing also super-sensitizes and energizes people who don’t usually perform, thus making them feel super-charged.