(this article appeared in the November 2004 issue of the magazine of LIFT, the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto)
I see you've got a gun: A Conversation with JoAnne Greenham
by Darya Farha
JoAnne Greenham, the director of the Gestalt Institute of Toronto, is much in demand as a psychotherapist, consultant and teacher. She has over thirty years experience in the field and has worked with many people in the arts including directors, actors, writers and visual artists. She herself studied at the Ontario College of Art (now Ontario College of Art and Design) and has a special interest in creativity and dreamwork. I wanted to interview Greenham about creativity because she is perhaps the most creative and unpredictable person I have met. Studying with her has been a fascinating and rich experience, characterized by playfulness and an inclusive attitude to life. We met twice over the summer for the purposes of this interview.
DF: What is creativity?
JG: It's making something out of nothing. It's a process of making a whole, a formation. Genesis.
DF: And when we say a person is creative, what are we saying about them? Often I'm not even sure what I mean when I use the word.
JG: Well, I think everyone has their own meaning for these words, their own associations. I tend to think of it as what a person does with the available resources.
DF: Why is it so interesting? There are so many books trying to explain it.
JG: It's the surprise. The unexpected. The suspense.
DF: I'm curious about what it takes to do that, to manipulate resources and materials in the environment and make something new. I know I've often felt an element of fear in myself and seen that in other people too.
JG: It has to do with destroying. I look behind you there on the sofa and there's a big pile of stuff. I really should go through it and throw things out--it's been there for a year. There's something about disturbing and dismantling that's upsetting for people. The creative person has to dismantle. And I don't believe that many people can do that without anxiety. I'm so stuck on the order and the rules about not mixing. You find out what's disturbing to you. It's your sense of what's allowed. There was a student here who started to mix dry pastel with oil. And it made me nervous--I told her it wasn't going to work. Well, she wasn't afraid to try it, and it worked beautifully.
DF: So we block ourselves?
JG: When you think about it, there are blocks to contact that go on in the neurotic. They interrupt themselves. There's the stimulus, the awareness, the excitation, the action, the approach, the resolution and then the withdrawal when it's finished. Some people might do something with a couple of sticks and say that's lovely. They're satisfied. Their process is interrupted by the speed with which they do it in so that they don't go through a sensory experience. In some ways, if we were to involve a Gestalt model to creativity, we would say that it is a process that must involve the unknown. So that when writers have writer's block they get stuck somewhere, and it must have something to do with the fear of the unknown. They struggle with not being able to proceed and how they screw around at that point, how they struggle and frustrate instead of trusting the emptiness that must be part of the creative process. The not-knowing is the place where something new is forming.
DF: And so how would you work with the block?
JG: I did it in the first exercise on the first day. [I had just co-lead JoAnne's Art Therapy and Dreamwork workshop. JoAnne is referring to an experiment in which participants were asked to draw a picture using all their most rigid and frightening expectations and standards. Paradoxically, they were drawing attention to the demands and criticisms that artists usually experience as background noise. By bringing that noise to the foreground, participants could incorporate it consciously into the artwork and see how it shaped their work. The resultant drawings were precise, accurate, somewhat tight likenesses of various objects in the room.] That's the exciting part. You introduce the stoppers, the blockers, the weapons you use to freeze yourself, and then shine a light on it. It's like saying, "I see you've got a gun." (laughs)
DF : Right. The idea is to exaggerate the problem or symptom in order to reduce its power. Instead of trying to smash through the problem, you make the problem central to the artwork...When you suppress it you make it worse. [ To the reader: Try it for yourself. Next time you feel blocked, don't try to loosen up. Instead try to tighten more, and learn how you tighten yourself.]
JG: Yes, and the person with the gun gets a little disarmed. "Yeah?!", they say when you point it out. It's stating the obvious, working with the obvious, instead of what ought to be.
DF: You eventually bring your standards back in so that they don't just block you, they can help you to produce stuff that's good.
JG: Bring them in with awareness and drop the ones that are useless. When they're controlling me and running my life I can't respect myself, I feel worthless, I don't respect what I'm doing. For me, in my life, nobody expected me to be anything specific. There was nothing about perfection in my life except maybe the way my mother washed the floors. (laughs)
DF: You didn't have a lot of expectations put on you? Wow, that seems unusual to me. I don't know what we should do; I feel almost like we should make a scientific exhibit out of you or something.
JG: I don't have that anxiety about standards and perfection. I'm happy to be here. I'm just happy to have made the team.
DF: That's amazing to me—give me some of that! No, but seriously, I feel I haven't been a very good interviewer so far because I've been trying to figure out what the LIFT members would want to know from a psychotherapist, and obviously I can't possibly figure that out.
JG: It has to do with contact, being in contact with your own process and also our being in contact with each other.
DF: Yes, rather than being in contact with you I've been more in contact with my "should." But actually, that reminds me that I'd wanted to ask you about collaboration. For many people, filmmaking is collaborative and social, and you have to find the right people to work with. Do you have any thoughts on that? Sometimes it's so hard to know who would be the right person to work with.
JG: Well, it's about self-revelation, about saying "This is who I am." It's often a good idea to do that in another medium, not the medium you're working in. For example, you could get together and draw. That way you're in contact with each other as you do something. You could see how it goes and then decide whether or not to proceed. You don't want to get caught up in the content.
DF: I'm wondering about other sorts of blocks and problems. Gestalt is concerned with where you stop yourself. I'm thinking for example of filmmakers who get stuck in the pre-production stage, or film a lot and can't move on to editing.
JG: There's so much excitement. There's some satisfaction in the gathering of material. I think it's a bit addictive. And then people become gatherers rather than artists or filmmakers or whatever they want to be. When you're stuck, caught up in the gathering of data, you might lose interest, you can lose contact with your process. All they get is more and more instead of engaging their attention. For people with ADD, no pattern begins to emerge. They're caught up in the activity of gathering and aren't paying that much attention.
DF: What about people who focus on the end, on the product?
JG: That's the ambition, to be good, to be great. Ambition controls the art work. Unless you're stuck thinking you'll never get anywhere. Then the introduction of ambition can be an important component in the process. Ambition doesn't have to be neurotic.
DF: I also often have a problem concentrating. It's like I can't let myself become absorbed in my work. I can't let go of the social.
JG: It's another cycle of involvement that's upstaging the creativity. Something is unfinished, unresolved in your relation to the social. You don't have to resolve it, but you need at least to be aware of it and put it aside.
DF: And what is it when you can't detach from what you've made, can't let it go?
JG: If somebody has a baby, they want to show it. At first they want to talk about the labour, how long it was. Somehow they want to show the product. There's a reluctance to let go of the self. They're not yet ready to let the production speak for itself. And once they are, then they're free. There's all kinds of not knowing. For a baby you just have to wait and drink apple juice. Little effort and lots of love. Whereas the artist is responsible for every cell in the body of the work; the artist really struggles.
DF: What's the artist's struggle about?
JG: To fill their expectations.
DF: There were quite a few artists, people used to working with images, in the Art Therapy and Dreamwork workshop. What difference do you find between people who work with images and are used to drawing compared to those who aren't in terms of art therapy?
JG: The artists are very committed to the exercises. They're not worried about their drawings so they can get right to the feeling. They enter at a different place on the continuum. With those who aren't used to it, you have to start earlier. The trick is to outwit, so to speak. With the artists you've got to be creative enough to bypass what they're anticipating. By mixing up the figure/ground they get less active control of the process.
DF: I'm really interested in the program you're doing in the spring using video. Can you talk about that a little?
JG: I'm interested in the notion of projection. I wondered what it would be like to bypass all the verbal stuff and just see yourself. We put a lot of clout in our opinion of how we're perceived by others. In our young adult life we assume things about how we're perceived. My interest in video started years ago when I was in couples therapy with a therapist who used to videotape the sessions. What happened for me--it was quite profound--is that I stopped judging myself in terms of my appearance, of the kind of person I was, and I recognized myself. It was empathy for myself. I stopped indulging in so much self-criticism and self-evaluation. I don't know what will happen for the participants. One of the students who's in film is going to operate the camera, and the tapes will be destroyed when it's over. It will be an experimental program.
DF: I'm wondering though if maybe people have gotten used to seeing themselves, what with the accessibility of video technology now. I'm thinking especially that many independent filmmakers see themselves a lot; they're in their friends' films or artwork or even in their own. Will this be anything new for them?
JG: When you're doing it in your art you're controlling it and framing it. But this doesn't have that element. That's why we're calling it Through the Eyes of a Stranger. This use of video here will cut through our sense of aesthetics, aesthetics that often come from our crazy values.
DF: I know you've run a program for actors in the past. What kinds of issues come up when working with actors?
JG: The groups we did were quite amazing. We did therapy with them, a lot of the regular experiments. And we had them act out a scene from their own lives. Actors have issues around authenticity. What tended to come out was how much more authentic they were when they acted out their own lives. They played themselves in the scenes. In the old movies you see that the actors were hammy, corny, play-acty. Now we value reality, things have to seem real. So, nowadays, actors have to be able to be corny and giddy in order to get some relief from that pressure to be real. So we give them a chance to do that.
DF: It's a bit of a paradox, because you have to play at this incredible authenticity. You're saying that to get to authenticity you've got to go through artificiality.
JG: Yes. Another issue for actors is that they have trouble because they have to both suppress and express emotion at once. We had one actor here who had a lot of anger towards casting agents, because of the power they had over him. He was into kissing ass. And so we got him to go in to auditions and kind of curse the agent under his breath. By acknowledging his feelings he was able to access more emotion and energy for the audition itself. He could be more natural.
DF: And what about directors? Have you worked with film directors too?
JG: Yes, I worked with two very well-known directors in Scandinavia. They were opposites from each other. One had an idea, a vision, that guided him. The other worked with the actor, and with the actor's ideas.
DF: I was going to ask you why so many creative people are attracted to Gestalt; there are a lot of artists here, writers, designers, painters, I notice. But I suppose I could answer that myself: it's the use of art, psychodrama, improvisation, free association, metaphor, the emphasis on personal style, things like that.
JG: But that's today. In the early days, Gestalt was considered more New Age-y. George Rosner [the former director of the Institute] introduced art, and we ran with his idea; we sought it out.
DF: Before we finish, I wanted to ask you about your own creative process as a therapist. You know how gymnasts run and then do a tumbling line? You tumble but without running first. I can't see it coming—all of a sudden you do an aerial or something. You're not working linearly or through explanation.
JG: It probably comes from my recklessness. Because I don't really know how to tumble.
DF: I love it. To me you seem like a conceptual artist. You take huge leaps. I don't know how you get there but it's always amazing.
JG: What it is for me is that when I wade in and go carefully then I get so impatient. You have to lay the groundwork, but, eventually, I lose patience and I say "let's go for it." What's to lose, as long as you're willing to deal with it if you're wrong? That's important: to admit when you're wrong. If you don't, then you become a bully.
DF: Maybe that's why there's such joyfulness in your work, even when you're working with sadness or anger. There's something about joy and risk. They seem related to me.
JG: Yes, they do. Somehow, what it brings to mind is children. Children will find pleasure anywhere. That's what they do. If they're not given the opportunity for pleasure they'll make anything pleasurable.
DF: I'd never thought of that, but that's so true. Realizing that makes me feel a little sad, since so many children become afraid and lose that instinct for pleasure.
JG: Fear stifles creativity and risk-taking. Expression, if it's disabled, thwarts a person from expressing how different they are. We are unique, and we need an outlet to express who we are. Expression prevents ultimate destruction. Michael Moore, in his film Farenheit 9/11, talks about the creation of fear. Since he made that film people are leaping off his success, they're feeling liberated.
DF: But so many people are critical of him, even people on the same side.
JG: Yes, now they're getting picky.
DF: I think he's extremely courageous.
JG: Yes, it's a wonder he's alive.
DF: Thanks for your time JoAnne.
JG: I hope you got something there.
Darya Farha is a LIFT member and a graduate of the Institute. This is the second of two articles on creativity.