Fearless, unabashed improvisation is the key to all innovation whether in molecular biology or mandolin.…this way of thinking is perhaps the greatest gift…

Knowing that Princeton’s English department in 1985 was still somewhat suspicious of creative theses as sometimes lacking in academic rigor, I had suggested a project ambitious enough to overcome even the most stringent critics: I would adapt and condense into one play the absurd but ingenious Ubu triptych made famous in the 1890s by French playwright Alfred Jarry. Next I would mount a production of the adapted play for the public, at 185 Nassau, with pyrotechnics to rival the helicopter scene in the later Miss Saigon. I would then write a director’s notebook about the experience of writing, casting, directing, and implementing the production. Finally, I would write a 100-page treatise on the nature of directing for the theater, using my production as the model, and—hardest of all for a college kid—try to make it unpretentious.   

The terror began to set in when my first meetings were planned with my thesis advisers, the irrepressibly brilliant Michael Cadden, and the laconic Yoda Alan Mokler. The topic for my Mokler meeting should have been a pleasant one: I was being given access to the services of a professional production designer, lighting designer, sound designer, and a composer—more resources than I had for any prior production—to help me realize my vision. But what was my vision? What, Yoda would ask, did the schoolboy plan to tell these grown-up designers to give them the direction they would need to proceed?   

jarecki-3When the day of the first big design meeting arrived, I sat at Program Director Mokler’s table and hemmed and hawed about my ideas for this material I loved. As much as I had worked on the play, I was at a loss for how to explain the design of the production.   

Recognizing my misery, Yoda responded simply: “Andrew, you actually don’t need to think about it. You have been working on this play for six months, picturing every scene in your mind’s eye. You already know what it is going to look like, sound like, feel like. Just close your eyes and tell me what you see….”   

His kindness in that moment allowed me to do exactly what he said, and out came a deluge of images and sounds: the stage was off-kilter like Jarry’s world, raked at a steep angle; it was constructed of old boards, widely spaced apart, with light sourced not from above, but from beneath, refracted in shafts as it rose through this space. When the gluttonous Pere Ubu would order that his military officers gather the noblemen to have their brains removed, the “debraining machine” would be accessed through a secret hatch in the wooden stage. When each corrupt noble was dropped through the hatch into the grinder, a satisfying and grisly revving of the machine would yield a single, extruded brain (think Vaseline-covered foam) to be catapulted back up through the opening, landing with a wet splat in the lap of an unsuspecting audience member.   

The production that emerged months later became a cult event, more in the mode of Rocky Horror than Ibsen, and in that was probably far closer to the Grand Guignol Jarry had first envisioned. More important, the experience was an epiphany for me that unbound every artistic thing I would undertake—giving me the permission I needed to get my mind out of the way of my heart. In those few moments in my teacher’s office, he had given me the keys to the secret cupboard of creativity.   

Early on, when Shirley Tilghman described to me her plans for the Lewis Center, and particularly her understanding of the importance of improvisation, I instantly responded. Fearless, unabashed improvisation is the key to all innovation whether in molecular biology or mandolin. Sharing this way of thinking is perhaps the greatest gift the Lewis Center can pass on to every student lucky enough to be touched by it.   

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This article was originally published in 2015 by the Princeton University Office of Development Communications. It has been reprinted and adapted for the web with permission.

Photography by Kah Leong Poon