On Originality

When I wonder what it’s like to be Misha Penton, the Founder and Artistic Director of Houston’s Divergence Vocal Theater,  I imagine her waking up each day, making a pot of tea, and thinking, “Let’s make something pretty!”

DVT has been “making something pretty” since their launch in November of 2008.  Their most recent performance, “Selkie, A Sea Tale,” plunged the audience — many of them, first time “swimmers” in the sometimes icy waters of classical music and operatic vocalism — into an other-worldly fantasy/reality journey to uncharted realms of imagination.  “Selkie” marked a new artistic level for the company, and an achievement of Penton’s driving vision:  to create new work that is completely collaborative and entirely original.   A musical and artistic feast for the senses, there’s much more than just eye and ear candy here. DVT has created deep nourishment for a soul’s appetite for sheer beauty.

I’ve known  Misha Penton for over five years, and I’ve listened and watched as her vision has grown.  In previous DVT productions, Misha created dynamic musical and theatrical — experiences — were they concerts?  Events? Happenings? — by forming a team of artists and collaborators, and then creating a “mashup” of chosen classical works, dance, and multimedia as a mood journey around a selected theme.  Watching her has been a wonderful laboratory course in the creative process.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Be really, really good at what you do. Play up every advantage you have, and if you find there’s something you need to know, get busy learning all about it.
  2. Have a bunch of really cool friends, where mutual respect and enjoyment of time spent together are paramount.  Figure out ways to spend more time together, where everyone can have a chance to do what they also are really, really good at.
  3. Spend time daydreaming and start lots of sentences with ‘It would be so much fun to . . .”
  4. When an idea becomes clear, compelling, and reaching the point of obsession, map out a path to get there, and to make it happen.  Take at least a small step in that direction every day.
  5. Share your excitement.   Tell others what you are doing in a way that excites them, too.  Welcome their involvement, their resources, their strengths and skills.
  6. Express gratitude to your collaborators, your audience, and to the universe.  Say “Thank You,” and ask for more.  Repeat.

I consider myself to be a “creative,” and I spend a lot of time thinking about creativity, originality, and what Jungians would call “individuation” or self-actualization.  As a teacher of the Feldenkrais Method, part of my job is to facilitate the self-actualization process for others. My long-favorite notion, happily refreshed in light of Misha’s example, is that the best original thought – and action –  comes from pure self-expression.  Her core value — to create something of beauty — is the wellspring for the ideas.  Then, she follows through with actions that are consistent with her purpose.  If you do that, you’re going to find your own voice.  You will be original.

The collaborators are Misha’s dream team and secret weapon.  The work began with poetry she wrote after seeing a sea lion off the rugged coast of British Columbia.  This poetry became the libretto for the work, magnificently set to music by Elliot Cooper Cole.  Scored for piano and cello (beautifully played by Jeremy Wood and Olive Chen, respectively) and two voices (Penton and fellow soprano Natasha Manley), Cole created an expressive soundscape that used impressionistic and Straussian “flavors” along with his signature haunting modal milieu. Cole is a writer of melodies, and there is no shortage of them in this work.  At times the sound was so lush and full, I could hardly believe it was not played by a much larger ensemble. Dancer Meg Brooker provided elemental choreography for the ensemble, then flowed seamlessly into her own gravity-defying, swimmy/floaty presence. Actors Miranda Herbert and Melissa McEver provided ambient sprechstimme effects and the felt presence of witnesses to the tale.  They seemed like they belonged there, rather than an add-on (Actors! We need some actors!).  Sarah Mosher’s costumes, and Serrit Jensen’s fantastical headpieces provided movement, color, shape, and continual interest. The lighting by Megan Reilly was at first whimsical, then provided a heartbreaking ambiance for the inevitable conclusion of love lost — or at least, different than you thought it would be.  In concert with David Brown’s stunning minimalist set installation, consisting of three large metal frames, wrapped in layer upon layer of cling-wrap, the effect was inviting, engaging, and a thing of beauty.

Each element of the production integrated perfectly so that the whole was indeed greater than the sum of the parts.  I think that’s  what Wagner had in mind when he put forth his idealized concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total (whole) artwork.”  I, and the rest of the audience, saw, heard, felt, tasted, and sensed. “Selkie” was a 50-minute journey into a completely novel and original experience.  I wonder if OperaAmerica knew that’s what was in store from their featured OperaWeek spotlight company from Houston?

After the opening night performance, Misha said, “I feel like I have set up the base camp for my Everest.”  Divergence Vocal Theater is now poised to be a catalyst for the creation of original collaborative work in this new and emerging performance art category. Whatever pinnacle she has in mind, her sherpas and suppliers are tested and ready for the next expedition.  So put on another pot of tea, Misha.  I can’t wait to see what you create next.

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One thought on “On Originality

  1. Straussian! Yes. I used the same comparison to describe Selkie. Whatever they are, concerts, happenings, whatever, I was deeply affected by the work during and after. And yes, I shed more than my share of tears.

    I liked that.

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