Probably the most valuable lesson I ever learned about the process of ideas was many years ago while at drama school. I was working with Dave Warburton on our final assignment and the project was to devise a piece of theatre around the subject of men and achievement. We had spend a few weeks researching the topic and had narrowed it down to men and their achievements in science. We had spend hours in the library, interviewed a number of scientists and discussed at great length our own thoughts and feelings around the topic. It was time to start devising the piece. But we were stuck. We were so stuck that we couldn’t even come up with a basic idea for the piece.
So we went to see our course tutor, Colin Hicks. We sat down and explained our findings and our predicament. Colin suggested we should take some time off. To take a few days and forget about the project and just have fun for a bit. It sounded like a slightly odd suggestion, but never to pass on an opportunity to take time off, we did.
The drama school was located in a lovely park and it was early summer. We went and played in the park for a few days. It was fun. In fact, the games we were playing were getting more and more elaborate and complex. People were watching us and became curious. We became curious. The games we were playing turned into the show we ended up performing. A very elaborate, improvised science experiment. We performed it in parks around London that summer and the reactions we got from people who watched it were really interesting. We clearly achieved our objectives of making a play which addressed the subject.
The key lesson coming from the experience though was that you don’t make ideas, you allow them to form. Do your research, fill your head with the information that should inform the idea and then forget about it. Trust your brain to play and let the idea come out. It will be informed by the knowledge you fed into it.
To this day I still follow the same process. I research and then take some time off. Sit on the bowling green or by the river or in the garden and let the ideas come. It still works. And every now and then I remember the complex structure we built as part of our final show. It’s a potent symbol of how ideas come about.