What Russian Theater Can Teach Us About the Creative Process

Hero image
Illustration by Bruce Branson-Meyer
Hero image
Illustration by Bruce Branson-Meyer
An image of the classic cascading process plan
the classic cascading process plan
An image of the classic cascading process plan
the classic cascading process plan

After a superobjective is defined, we can begin discussing what the first thing we need to know is (objective 1), followed by collectively determining what is in our way (obstacle 1) to getting to there. We can then create bespoke strategies to overcome the obstacles in order to get to the objective. These are our actions. With every objective reached, a new objective becomes defined, along with new obstacles and actions to keep us moving forward. This model represents an approach that focuses on looking ahead to what’s happening right in front of us, rather than behind to a plan that’s already out of date.

There is deep wisdom for all business executives, marketers, strategists and brand-based thinkers to learn from one of the most significant figures in the history of theater, Konstantin Stanislavski.

Let me show you what I mean.

Time and again, brand managers, marketers, and agency folk choose to create project plans that look at programs dragging out across a 3+ month-long timeframe. A typical project map for such an engagement might look something like this:

Part of Stanislavski’s technique for actors to bring a scene to life on stage included:

  1. Superobjective — the desired result of the whole scene
  2. Objectives — what each character wants as individuals within the scene
  3. Actions — ways of pursuing the objectives
  4. Obstacles — conflicts that prevent actions from working

What Stanislavski knew was that if a character was able to define their ultimate goal, so long as they stayed in active pursuit of it, their actions would always be beneficial. Even the ones that thwarted their planned activities.

Watch this classic scene from The Princess Bride. In it, Mandy Patinkin’s character, Inigo Montoya, has brought an (apparently) dead man, the movie’s hero, to Miracle Max, in hopes that Max will be able to bring him back to life. It contains everything Stanislavski was talking about.

We’ve put this model into practice with a few of our partners, for initiatives ranging in size and scope, and thus far the results are tremendous. We are finding that both the work, and the spend are more efficient, because we are solving discrete and precise problems along the way, rather than letting full teams run rampant because they’re “supposed to be involved” during predefined weeks of the process. The work itself has also netted superior results because the full team (client and agency, alike) are aligned on exactly what business problem is being solved. This ensures strategic and creative solutions are always purposeful, solving the brief of the moment, and safeguarded against getting ahead of ourselves or creating solutions that aren’t relevant and valuable. As Stanislavsky said, “The mistake most actors make is that they think about the result instead of about the action that must prepare it.” The same rule can be applied here.

Lastly, while it’s early in our new model experiment, we are finding that the ROR (return on relationship) is off the charts, in both directions. Our agency is philosophically driven by three working principles:

  1. Sleeves rolled up (we are in the work with the client, not a disappear-and-grand-reveal agency)
  2. Nothing without purpose (no extraneous or unnecessary people or explorations)
  3. Keep moving forward (progress over perfection)

Under this new model of working, we are able to more easily execute against this set of principles, and as previously mentioned, all parties are in constant touch, making decisions, evaluating feedback, building strategies, and setting the course moment by moment. We are finding that the full team is collaborating easier, with greater depth, and with greater knowledge sharing. Teams feel closer, more aligned, and working with greater satisfaction.

I have defined my own career with the guiding belief that there has got to be a better way. It is time to stop accepting the unwritten truth that old models are good enough. Perhaps the best way to move ahead is to learn from the artists who broke the mold once before.

  1. Superobjective — Inigo wants to avenge his father’s death at the hand of the 6-fingered man
  2. Objective — Inigo wants Miracle Max to bring the Man in Black back to life
  3. Action #1 — Inigo offers Max money
  4. Obstacles — Max tells him it’s not enough money
  5. Action #2 — Inigo makes up a story of the Man in Black’s imaginary family to gain sympathy
  6. Obstacle #2 — Max doesn’t believe him
  7. Action #3 — Inigo intensely offers the truth of his own need for revenge
  8. Obstacle #3 — Max isn’t persuaded

And on and on, until Max comes to realize that by bringing to life the Man in Black his own desire for revenge on a different character, Prince Humperdinck, will be fulfilled. It’s a wonderful scene, made remarkable by the great performances and brilliant writing. Inigo must try multiple actions in pursuit of a clear objective within the scene that is driven by a larger goal that drives the need for these activities to exist at all.

Now let’s go back to our brand innovation example. As noted, the “cascade process” threw everyone for a loop. We hadn’t planned on the obstacle of conflicting consumer feedback when we began (just as Inigo had not counted on Max’s various rejections of help offers). If we had built a process model that was more aligned with the Stanislavski method, we would have merely seen the feedback as an obstacle that set up a new action or objective to pursue. The research would not have been presumed to move us forward, it would have been an action that we pursued in order to help inform us of what our next objective should be.

Such a model might look like this:

“Stanislavski” objective-based process
“Stanislavski” objective-based process
“Stanislavski” objective-based process
“Stanislavski” objective-based process

Under this model, the first thing a team would do is define the superobjective — this is what the project, program, or initiative is driving towards overall. Using our innovation project, the superobjective was linked to specific sales and engagement metrics at launch. The team will always use this to help drive the objectives along the way.

If we had built a process model that was more aligned with the Stanislavski method, we would have merely seen the feedback as an obstacle that set up a new action or objective to pursue.
It’s time we stopped wasting time planning long, detailed, perfect processes when the only thing we know for sure is that they won’t work out like that.
What Stanislavski knew was that if a character was able to define their ultimate goal, so long as they stayed in active pursuit of it, their actions would always be beneficial.
We are finding that the ROR (return on relationship) is off the charts.
Inigo Montoya meets Miracle Max
Inigo Montoya meets Miracle Max

My guess is that you’re vaguely familiar with this map or something like it. You might even be asking, “what’s wrong with it?” All the pieces seem to be in the right place. It tracks time on the (x) axis and activities on the (y) axis, and breaks down the discrete moments when agency team members typically come into play — usually a cascading visual effect amounting to four phases:

  1. Thinking (account and strategy teams)
  2. Creating (creative teams)
  3. Making (production teams)
  4. Broadcasting (media teams)

The problem I have with this model is that it presumes that the hypotheses developed before the start of a project are correct, that nothing worth reacting or responding to will ever be learned along the way, and that there will be no conflict to resolve throughout the process.However, I challenge any CEO, CMO, or brand manager to show me an example of a project in which nothing unexpected came up, be it negative or positive. It’s time we stopped wasting time planning long, detailed, perfect processes when the only thing we know for sure is that they won’t work out like that. In nearly two decades of having my hands deep in the creative process, I can’t think of a single project that didn’t have a moment that could (or should) have changed the trajectory of the work.

These spontaneous course-altering events don’t always have to be monumental, though they might be. I’ll give you an example of a small, powerful one. Currently, I am working on a team at Hornall Anderson that is helping a market leader with a breakthrough innovation project. The nature of innovation projects is that you’re a bit in start-up mode, moving fast and furious as you explore uncharted territory, as our current collaborator is bravely doing. In this project, the first set of designs was built around an idea the organization had that they could leverage a specific celebrity endorsement to help design and launch the innovation. Multiple partner agencies, including ours, thought the plan, based on the target and the new product, was compelling, logical, and sound. However, after a round of consumer feedback, it turned out that the planned celebrity involvement created a disconnect for the brand in this case; it added an extra layer that was confusing to the people we were aiming to target.

The above project model would suggest that we forge ahead, or risk throwing off the set calendar of events. Its rigid, cascading certainty of events doesn’t account for obstacles or wrinkles. This is where the creation of a new model, one that actually embraces the idea that obstacles are a natural part of the creative process, could be revolutionary.

Enter Konstantin Stanislavski.

Stanislavski’s approach to acting created the cornerstone for realism as we know it in live theater. It was the building block for what many refer to as “Method Acting”. His technique was deceptively simple, but, like all fine arts, most beautifully rendered by those craftspeople who have taken the time to embrace, learn, and practice in the philosophies, and who have poured countless hours dedicated to their pursuit.

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