War Paint: Tunneling Through the Creative Process

Photo by Thomas Tucker on Unsplash

The book Smarter Faster Better, by Charles Duhigg, takes a look at the “secrets” of business productivity. It explores best practices having to do with things like enhanced motivation, decision making, and mental focus. When I saw the Broadway production of War Paint, this book immediately came to mind. Although I enjoyed the show overall, there were some problems; primarily a lack of magic in the lyrics and dialogue. The two concurrent storylines never came together, and I left thinking, “That was pretty, but what went wrong?” My suspicion is that cognitive tunneling, a topic Duhigg discusses in his book, may be to blame for many of the show’s limitations.

When we get into a cognitive tunnel, we get so consumed by certain details that we miss their overall meaning. Duhigg puts it this way:

“Cognitive tunneling can cause people to become overly focused on whatever is directly in front of their eye or become preoccupied with immediate tasks.”

So when problems arise, we’re unprepared to explore the situation deeply enough to find suitable solutions. To help focus on broader details and the bigger picture, the book recommends developing mental models. The creation and practice of mental models are akin to visualization. In fact, his description reminds me of using The Secret. You imagine a variety of outcomes very early on in a situation, and predict what those would look like. Making these mental models prepares you to make more accurate assessments. Duhigg explains why this works:

“Cognitive tunneling and reactive thinking occur when our mental spotlights go from dim to bright in a split second. But if we are constantly telling ourselves stories and creating mental pictures, that beam never fully powers down. It’s always jumping around inside our heads. And, as a result, when it has to flare to life in the real world, we’re not blinded by its glare.”

In the case of War Paint, the creative team got many things right. The costumes were exquisite; the set was colorful and evocative of the time period. But the story never panned out. I was drawn to the main characters, Helena Rubinstein (played by Patti Lupone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole), and pretty much everyone said that their performances played a major role in keeping them engaged with the show. The story, though, seemed flat. While I was rooting for the success of both women and found individual scenes lifelike and interesting, I felt pretty much the same way in the last scene as I did in the beginning. The narrative just drove in a circle for a couple of hours, then parked in the same spot where it began. The writers, Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie, are all clearly capable of crafting a thought-provoking piece of theatre, but this time, they didn’t figure it out. I suspect this was due to cognitive tunneling. They were focused on whatever they were focused on, and never figured out how to get the story on the right track. If they’d created mental models early on, they might have been able to fix some of the more perplexing problems.

War Paint on Broadway
Photo from War Paint Offical Facebook Page

This happened to me a few years ago while working on a play called Penetration: The Game Show. In this case, we had already booked the theatre a few months before without knowing exactly what we wanted to put onstage. Everyone involved discussed their ideas, and we landed on the story of a game show that goes wrong. Jolly characters could have a dark streak, and competent contestants would end up falling down a rabbit hole of misfortune. We asked for contributions of scenes from several talented writers we knew and pieced them together in a zany but sensical manner. As the show got closer, though, we realized that, as a cohesive play, it wasn’t working. The scenes were eccentric, unpredictable, and highly entertaining, but at the end, it was confusing and just not that memorable. We focused on the obvious shortcomings, such as clunky transitions and lame jokes, and polished them as best we could. Had we taken the time to create mental models at the beginning, dealing with the potential problems of turning a game show into a moving narrative, we might have been able to fix it before opening night.

Ultimately, Penetration: The Game Show was decent. We got a lot of laughs and a few compliments here and there. I’m still pleased with the fixes we made, and the show overall, but consider it mostly a learning experience. Valuable lessons that made the ideas in Smarter Faster Better, a business advice manual, seem relevant to the creative process. With these ideas in mind, I hope to implement mental models in a very strategic way with upcoming projects and hopefully it works to my advantage.