Creative Parenting with Nina Meehan is brought to you by Bay Area Children’s Theatre.
Nina Meehan: Welcome to Creative Parenting with Nina Meehan. Hi, I’m Nina Meehan, CEO and founder of Bay Area Children’s Theatre, and a mom of three. Through my work with Bay Area Children’s Theatre, and as an artist and educator, I have had the joy and pleasure of bringing story and imagination to hundreds of thousands of kids and families all over the world. In this podcast, I’m gonna share some of the creative parenting ideas that I have learned along the way, and that I often bring into my own family life. So let’s get ready to turn up the volume on imagination and fun with Creative Parenting.
NM: Jeff Raz is an acclaimed playwright, stage director and performer. He has starred on Broadway with Cirque du Soleil and among many others, as well as an author and Global Communications Consultant. His first book, The Secret Life of Clowns, was launched at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC in 2017. His second book, The Snow Clown, followed in 2018 and Love Death Circus released one chapter a week during the pandemic. He is currently writing the script for the 2021 California Rebels, and I will say that Jeff Raz is an old friend who I have had the joy of working with at Bay Area Children’s Theatre, where he directed for us many years ago when he was still the head of the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco. So it was such a fun thing for me to be able to chat with Jeff. I absolutely adored how he interwove conversations about his time as a Cirque du Soleil clown, his teaching and his parenting, and how all three elements of his life fed into each other and fueled each other, and how open he is to learning and how all three of those different aspects of who he is as a human and a creative artist, really helped him understand and learn the world of parenting, and that he’s still learning every day. So enjoy Jeff.
NM: Jeff, I’m so delighted to have you here today. Thank you so much for joining.
Jeff Raz: My pleasure. It’s great to be here.
NM: Fantastic to chat with you about all things creativity and parenting. You have this unbelievable background as a clown, a director, an actor, a writer, you work with corporate groups, you have this unbelievable wealth of experience in the creative genre, and you are also yourself a parent, so I’m gonna start with the biggest broadest question ever. As a person who has spent your entire career entertaining adults, families, kids, what do you see as the role of creativity, imagination play in family dynamics?
JR: There’s so many answers. The one that just leaps into my mind is that clay is learning, I remember my children, my boys are 18 and 24, and I vividly remember each of them when they were little babies that the basic needs are, screaming, I’m hungry, gotta change my diaper, I’m hot, cold, or I’m tired, not a big range, and those, I thought were the core. That’s it, you don’t get any more core than that, but I noticed time and time again, if there was a good game to play, all of those disappeared.
JR: If the right toy came out or there’s something to do here, oh my god, even from being exhausted with a full diaper and hungry.
NM: And we’ve all been there with the exhausted full diaper and hungry.
JR: Yeah. And our kids have been there too, but yeah, you’re right.
NM: So what I’m hearing is that play was an opportunity in your family to sort of lift above that, like those everyday moments of need and which can often lead to sort of tension and changing the mood, changing the vibe.
JR: Yes, and it came from my kids. I find a lot around creativity, I learned from either my kids or young people or adults that I’m working with, there’s usually something that I get taught in those and it’s okay. I still take my paycheck as the teacher, but I understand that the learning is often two-directional and often come in my way more than the other.
NM: I so agree. I feel like we have so much to learn from our kids, but I’m concerned sometimes that I see that we as adults, we’re asked to be the experts, we’re asked to be right a lot. And I know you work with a lot of companies now, like organizations that are filled with grown adults. Can you share some thoughts on what you see is creative play and imagination right now in the adult world? Where is it thriving? Where could we as adults look for more of that?
JR: I’m not sure where it’s thriving though, I think during lockdowns, there was thriving on virtual platforms where… I just talked to a friend of mine, who I work with in the business world, whose 13-year-old daughter’s taking bass lessons, and they were virtual, entirely virtual, and now they have a system where they go three or four virtual lessons and then a live lesson. The Bass playing is the creativity, but there’s also a lot of creativity in how to learn and teach, and I’m hoping that that comes flying up. I worked with a bunch of business schools at the beginning of the pandemic, and one of them was in Manila in the Philippines, and I had lunch there every day, 9 o’clock my time, but I’d lunch with their faculty and I learned so much from them. The one professor, a business professor, let’s be clear on this, so he figured out how to plug his iPad in and he had a stylist and he wrote all over his slides, and the idea was he did not want his business students to ever think that you couldn’t make a slide messy.
NM: I love that.
JR: And it was a deeper thought, he wanted to make sure this is gonna be messy. It’s not those little bullet points that you see. To me, that was a huge moment of creativity in the world of business, as a business teacher, I often see creativity on the edges, which I’m sure you relate to this, and it’s your job and often my job to try to say, you know, that’s a pretty recent formation, having creativity around the edges, even two generations ago, creativity wasn’t all around the edges. And by the edges, I mean the beginnings or the ends of sessions. I had a woman, we were working on voice and how to use your voice, which becomes even more important virtually, and I had… One of my colleagues is a wonderful actor and a South Indian singer, and I said, You’re gonna have to teach voice, you just got to with some singing. So there was singing in this session and it was… Many people little nervous but they loved it. So at the very end, one of the participants, actually, our client, I asked her if she’d like to say something, she said, I’d like to share a song, we sang this at my grandmother’s funeral. She died three weeks ago of COVID.
JR: And she started singing and everything in the virtual world that we were in changed. And it was not a long song, she happens to be a wonderful singer, she could have been a terrible singer, that brought everything we were doing in terms of voice, great, you just taught the curriculum and it brought everyone’s heart in as you and I know is part of creativity.
NM: I love that story ’cause I can just picture it, I can picture how the world stopped for that moment, and that notion that creativity can be at the edges, I think that’s actually really valuable for parents to be thinking about that we don’t have to dive in 24 hours a day and be doing 400 craft projects and acting out the play. It can be a small moment, it can be… My grandma used to sing me this song before bed, My mom used to sing me a song that was a LooLoo song, and just having those moments of ping, a little creativity. The world stops. I’m gonna pick up on a word you use, which it’s one of my favorite words on earth, which is messy. [chuckle] So you spent many years in front of live audiences as a clown, and you also ran a clown school, and you were a parent. I can only imagine that messy has been a part of some of those experiences. Can you talk to me about your belief in the right relationship between messy and creativity?
JR: I don’t love messy as much as you do, I always dream that everything will be neat and tidy, and that has served me in great stead because the profession of clowning attracts a lot of people who lives messy on stage and in their personal life, and I’ve always been very organized in the business role, again, something you recognize, which this is not the question you asked, but a well-organized clown is not an oxymoron. It actually is essential for a lot of professional work. Let me answer your question though, the thought that immediately came to mind, that’s what I’m gonna answer is, I was touring with Cirque du Soleil and my wife, who is a psychologist, said, Well, I’m not going on tour with you, I said, That makes sense? But we decided we’re gonna take… It was a little more than a year, and then I actually went back on the road a couple of times, but we’re gonna take this time and it’s gonna be hard, it’s gonna be messy, and it was, my kids were four and nine, and they came along with my mother-in-law to my opening in Atlanta, and they stayed a couple of days, and as they took the shuttle back to the airport, my wife called me from the airport to say that the older one said, Mom, can we roll down the windows to let the pain out? So that you can see I remember, he’s 24 now, right?
NM: Yeah, Yeah.
JR: So I said, we were playing in Denver in the middle of the summer, I said, I’m gonna take the kids for a week, I have a home in the… We used to be able to come home in the breaks between cities, I’m gonna take the kids, and it was quite a negotiation to try to figure this all out, and I hired a woman who was on tour in the costume department and her husbands was a rigger, I hired her to take care of them, and I knew that the boys would love the rigger and everything’s set up, it’s set up, except we missed the flight because Southwest had these two-and-a-half hour lines that I didn’t anticipate, and then we get there and I have a rehearsal the next day, not a show, but a rehearsal. And my younger son who was, I guess he had just turned five, got this… We called it the seal cough, it’s that horrible cough that kids get. So I’m up in the shower, hot shower with him all night trying to get the cough. [chuckle] So my friend from the costume department comes in the morning with her husband, the rigger, the boys are thrilled, and I’m like, Oh, alright. And my job involved getting hooked to a harness and flying up to the top of the tent, and they’d drop me down a few times, messy day.
NM: Messy day.
JR: The kids loved it, the kids were playing with the rigger’s ropes, and I got home and they’re all tied up, and this is the best thing ever, and I say, Yeah, go to bed time, it’s bedtime now.
NM: What I love about though, is from your perspective as a parent, this is a day that you remember, and I’m sure that you feel yourself immediately constrict and like I know what that tension… And yet, if I had one of your sons, like your 24-year-old and asked about the day that he got to get all roped up and fly up into tents that he probably would have been like, Oh my God, that was so great.
NM: Messy day. So in your book, Secret Life of Clowns, you talk about this existence, and I believe it was when you were on tour with Cirque du Soleil where you had this dual life where you were both performing as a clown and simultaneously training clowns, so you ran a clown school, a phenomenal clown school. And I’m wondering, what are the through lines for you that connected your life, do you have like a performer life, a teacher life, a parent life, what are some of those through lines that maybe parents might relate to specifically in terms of how you used your incredible creative energy?
JR: One of the differences between teaching, performing as a block and parenting is that you have measurable successes as a teacher and a performer, the audience applauds at the end, the students graduate at the end. Parenting, I find you better take… There’s not usually the ceremony, [chuckle] for you as a parent.
NM: Wait, wait wait, are you saying that your kids didn’t stand up and applaud at the end of every day of having the bedtime story read and the hot dogs made on time, like that wasn’t a thing that happened? [chuckle]
JR: Maybe I forgot, maybe it slipped my mind, never never. My 18-year-old, I asked him when he’s comparing… He was talking about other people’s dads and some of them were very rich and I said, “Well, what do you say about your dad?” You would say what… He goes, “Yeah, here’s how I do it.” And he goes, “Yeah, my dad’s a clown.” And then they look and I wait a few beats and then I say, “You know Cirque du Soleil?” “Yeah, yeah.” “You know they always got one guy who’s the main guy?” [chuckle] So that was as close to applause that I think I’ve ever gotten.
NM: That’s a good one. As that goes, I think that is a round of applause from your kids but… [chuckle]
JR: I loved it. I didn’t stand up and take a bow ’cause it would’ve ruined the moment, but yeah. But you asked for through lines and threads. It’s easy for me to see through lines between teaching and performing and that book is really about that. There are so many… One of the things is if you’re a teacher, it’s really easy to get disconnected from the experience of learning the lessons you’re teaching and that’s a dangerous thing. So I had been running the school for seven years when I went on tour, so I made a pact, “I’m going to look at my performance through the lens of what I tell my students and my students.” And it was really hard. I found most of what I was teaching I thought was pretty sound, but hard to do. I have a lot of sympathy for them. The key for that, and I do think it’s for parenting too, it’s just that much harder for parenting, is this idea… If you’re doing 385 shows a year, that means you’re doing between… And you have a few weeks off during the year, you’re doing 8-10 shows a week and the shows were 2 hours, 45 minutes, and we often did two a day and I was in 13 of the acts and I was spending 20 hours a week running my school, which was easier than working harder, but raising two kids in the moment. Raising two kids on Skype, long distance is easier. My wife had a harder gig that year than I did, but the thing is, you get bored. And I think that’s true for teaching and I think that’s true for parenting though we don’t wanna admit it.
NM: Say it. Say it again. “We can get bored. It happens.”
JR: We get bored.
JR: And that’s not a great place to come from. So in Cirque du Soleil, people are paying $150, $200, and when I played in Japan, they were paying $250, and there’s a lot of them and for them, it’s exciting and new and it better not be boring for me. So I had to say, “How am I not gonna be a hack today? How am I not gonna try to duplicate yesterday’s show and make it kinda okay? I’m gonna find something to focus on.” And that’s great for teaching as I focus on each student and what they need now and my kids. And I’ve got two kids, they’re both home. One just graduated from college, one just graduated from high school, and they’re both at different points in their lives, so it’s really helpful for me to focus on, “What am I gonna try to do as a parent?” So right now I’m trying to be a good drive-by parent, not say, “Let’s sit down and talk about this issue,” ’cause that goes over so well with young adults, but instead just say as a human being to a human being, “That was rough yesterday,” and then leave it and see what they say back. This fits with performing because as I get older, my skills as a juggler start to get a little weaker and then my skills as an acrobat evaporate into space. I don’t know where they went, so I need to use the audience more. So I guess that’s an equivalent. I may just focusing out, focusing on them.
JR: I was up early the other morning and I had a… I hope my 18-year-old doesn’t hear it. I had a whole, “I’m gonna talk to him about his new job.” And it was a real dad talk, and you know, when you’re half asleep, you can give these great that, “That just sounded good.” And I got up and he started talking to me about his job and I went, “Oh, he loves this job. I thought he hated this job,” ’cause he said, “I hate my job.” He’s new at it. He’s talking about his boss who he likes and he’s inventing new ways to make pizza. So that’s a moment where, just like a performer, “What’s the audience telling me? Well, what’s my audience telling me?” “Can your speech. It’s a speech to an imaginary human being who’s not in front of you. Listen and say, tell me how you’re gonna put the pepperoni on faster. What’s the device?” “Oh, it looks like this and this and… “Wow. And tell me about your boss. What did she say?”
NM: That active listening, I mean, What I’m hearing is that that’s something you were doing with your students, that’s something you were doing in front of an audience, that’s something you’re doing with your now 18-year-old. And I have a 13-year-old, a 10-year-old and a five-year-old and I know that moment so well when we think we know… We’ve played the whole story in our head of the thing we need to talk about and then you take a step back and if you really just take that pause and listen.
NM: And I do think as a person who has also been a teacher and a performer in different context, clearly I’ve not actually ever flown up to a Cirque du Soleil tent, but… [chuckle] But I…
JR: I could’ve lived my whole life without doing that.
NM: But I know that moment you’re talking about where you have to find the way to make it fresh and new every moment and the way you do that is that active listening. And I do think that that is completely connected to a creative spirit because a creative spirit, as you said in the very beginning, is all about learning. It’s about being in that learning mindset constantly.
JR: Even as a teacher, it’s really helpful to be in the learning mindset and I learned that as a clown, that’s a basic concept as a clown, if a baby cries, that’s more important than the gag you thought was going on. So I learned it first in that, which seems paradoxical ’cause I learned it in front of a bunch of people who could boo me and never pay me. Then I started to learn it teaching, but it’s harder because teacher, the image, the word, not so helpful to really do the action, the verb, the noun, doesn’t help the verb. And then only recently have I been able to figure out how to do that parenting. That if you’re wondering which is easier, again, being in front of 3200 people in a tent and they’re all looking at you is much, much easier than raising children for a day.
NM: Alright. So to all of our listeners, in case you were ever wondering, if you’re intending to run away to the circus, you might be right. It actually might be easier than getting your four-year-old to take a bath tonight. That is real. [chuckle] So Jeff, these days, how do you express your own creativity? I mean, we’ve all been in this very strange place in life where we haven’t had as much opportunities for social interaction or entertainment or any of those things, how have you kept your own creative spirit alive?
JR: That’s a question many, many people who were asking themselves, I thought it was going to be by participating in some Zoom stuff, like there was an… That exquisite corpse idea of, everybody makes a video that ends in one movement and then the next person picks it up, but we’re all making them separately. I did one of those, I enjoyed it but it didn’t float my boat, it didn’t do what you were just saying. What I found… You were saying about keeping your creative spirit going.
JR: What I was doing was a lot of virtual trainings with people around the world in business setting, and I had to make some choices, I had to one, say, “Wait a second. These people are in business, I am a consultant, but I get to choose. I’m not parking the other me at the door when I put on a better shirt,” leave on the same pajamas, but put on a better shirt. And that was huge. These people are creative. I get to treat them the way I treated my professional clown students, which is with love, I get to fall in love with them, and I started to find that they were feeding me. Like I was looking forward to hanging out with people back here in my office. So that change of focus, of breaking down a stereotype I hate, but I thought I didn’t realize I held, which is, there are suits and there are creatives, and I thought that really hurts everybody. Suits, first of all, you’re defined by your clothing, and that means you don’t have a heart or a spirit, and creative, that means you’re not allowed to wear a suit, which actually I look better in a suit sometimes, and you’re disorganized, all the things, you’re just creative. And I totally bought into that without knowing it.
JR: So breaking that down and saying, “No, we’re all creative. Whatever we’re wearing, we’re all creative,” and that’s gonna be a part… I’m leading these sessions, I get to set the tone, I get to treat my colleagues, I have coaches who work with me as full artists, I get to ask them to bring yourself Indian singing in. I got a Broadway, a former Broadway musical star. Yeah, you’re singing today. Most of them are actors. Let’s hear how you do this, let me play director and do that, and then people will see how that works, and that got a great, a great feeling going. And it helped me immensely.
NM: I love hearing that you were finding that you weren’t creating something, you weren’t like forcing it?
NM: You were allowing the moment of where you were to inform how you can keep those creatives juices flowing and that spirit alive. And I think that there’s… I’ve seen a lot of parents during this time having to do exactly what you just described, you know, “Okay, I can’t hire the magician for the birthday party, in fact, I can’t have the birthday party.” “Oh, I have an idea. I have all of these weird paper plates in the back of my car, let’s hang them up and make a backdrop and take funny pictures,” just that resourcefulness, we all have it inside of us. And it’s so helpful to think of it, what are the assumptions we’re making about ourselves, what are the assumptions we’re making about our kids, and what labels are we giving ourselves? Because you’re right, those labels aren’t helping any of us, and it’s all inside of us. We do have it right there for us at our fingertips. Jeff, I have just loved talking to you, I have a three-question speed round to finish up here. Are you ready?
JR: Okay. I’m ready.
NM: Okay. Here we go, if you could invent one completely crazy thing that does not currently exist and would have made your life as a parent easier or parents right now of young kids, what would it be?
JR: It actually has been invented on Star Trek, it would be the transporter, so that I could come off stage still in costume, be home for bedtime, read the story, and then be back for the second show, the Late Show.
NM: I totally need that transporter and you’re right, it has been invented, so we’ll just jump into TV Land and we’re all good. Okay.
JR: There needs to be food on the transporter, just to say it, is there needs to be a snack. Okay. What’s next? I’m ready.
NM: Alright, question number two, what is the first creative product, like a music, book, painting, play, that you can remember feeling inspired by or connected to? So when you were young.
JR: I’m not sure if this is the first, but it’s what came in to my mind, so I grew up in Huntington, Long Island, and my father died when I was young, and my mom went back to school at UC Berkeley, so we moved to Berkeley in 1968, and my Mom, single Mom now, was trying to give us some kind of education, so she took us to a few plays, and she took us to one play that I remember a character came on stage and went, “Shit.” [chuckle] So I did that for about a year and a half afterwards, I was inspired. My mother was inspired to never take me to another play without really checking it out ahead of time.
NM: Growing up, we saw, we’d listen to the music of the chorus line a lot, and there’s a very famous song in A Chorus Line known as, of course, “Tits And Ass” which was me and my sister’s favorite, and I have a pretty big singing voice, like I’ve always had a big voice and boy did I built that thing out at age like, five.
JR: I can see the two of you doing that, Oh man.
NM: A proud mom. [laughter] Alright, last one. Here we go. What is one word or phrase, and I’m gonna go back to your teaching days on this one.
NM: One word or phrase that you said most often to your students when you were teaching them? Something that like if I called one of them and was like, “What is the ultimate Jeff-ism?” What would they say?
JR: Oh, boy. God, I wrote a book about it, so I should have some of them right there. I’m gonna borrow one, I probably not the one I said most, but it’s one I’m saying most now, and I’m borrowing from a dear friend and teacher Avner Eisenberg, “Avner the Eccentric”. It’s be interested, not interesting.
NM: I love that. I love that. Oh, that’s so good.
JR: It works in every way you possibly can want. It is as though not being self-conscious or conscious of others, and it’s a core idea for a clown, it’s really a lot what we’ve been talking about, this core idea for a clown, that works really well for a teacher, and it’s not such a bad thing for parents.
NM: Yeah, be interested, not interesting. I think that it is a core idea, goes right back to listening and being present and all of those wonderful things. Jeff, thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m so excited to talk to you about all of these things, and I know that you have a million exciting other adventures happening. Is there anything else you wanted to talk to us about before we head out?
JR: No, I’d just mention that the current answer to the question of creativity is actually answered. I’m working on a play, I got commissioned to do a play, which is a lovely thing coming out of the lockdown for California Rebels, and the artistic, the new artistic director was in a cast of a make a circus show that I directed 30 years ago, 35 years ago. So it’s wonderful to be working with someone who you directed when they were a teenager.
NM: Oh, that is such a good first full circle moment. Oh, I love that. Thank you so much, Jeff, we’ll talk to you later, okay?
JR: Bye bye, Nina.
NM: So much fun to talk to Jeff today. Oh my goodness. Oh! What an amazing human being he is, and what fascinating adventures he has had on stage and off. As I’m reflecting on listening to what he had to say, I think the word that it just keeps popping up to me is that idea of listening, and how we as humans are just better at everything when we have truly open ears to listen to what is happening around us and respond, listen and respond. And as parents, it’s really easy for us to think we’re listening or I don’t know, I find myself a lot doing the sort of pretend listening. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Anyone else ever do that? [laughter] But what does it mean to truly listen to our children and to stop and slow down and take those deep breaths and listen and respond? And in Theatre, we have a lot of activities and games that are all about listening and responding, and one thing you can try with your family, it’s a super simple game. It’s just about making sounds. It’s called Sound Ball, and you can do this at the dining room table. You could do it when you’re waiting in line at the grocery store.
NM: It’s really simple. So the first person makes a sound and throws the imaginary ball at another person. So let’s say I went “Wee” and then the other person has to catch the ball using the same sound that I made, “Wee.” And then they throw it to the next person with a new sound, “Bee bonk,” and then that person catches it, “Bee bonk” with the same sound. And while this is super, it feels silly, and kids like it ’cause it’s easy and fun, what it’s doing is actually, if you’re playing with your kid, it’s giving them that reinforcement that you are listening. I heard your sound. I’m repeating it back and I’m letting it transform into something else, a new creative impulse. So I hope you were as inspired by Jeff as I was. Definitely any time we can listen to our kids is always phenomenal, but sometimes we can just use little creative ways to do it, like the sound game. You can actually just also do listening visually, meaning, I draw something on a paper. So if my child draws something and then I take that same paper and I get my own paper and I draw my version of what they drew, it’s still that same idea of listening and responding and then they can take my drawing and use that to respond and draw something new, and then I can copy or repeat what they’re drawing. So that’s visual listening. So many different ways to listen. So much fun. I hope you enjoyed Jeff.
NM: Thanks so much for listening. I’m Nina Meehan. For more information on Bay Area Children’s Theatre, please visit our website www.bactheatre.org. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please tell your friends, post on social media, shout from the rooftops, give us a good review, and remember, today’s the day to turn up the volume on creativity in your home. Thanks.