What A Puppeteer Turned Choreographer Can Teach Us About Creative Expression

Jerome Robbins wanted to be a puppeteer. He was fascinated by the craft of it. The complete control, despite being removed and above the stage, and how it created the feeling of still being in the middle of the action. The puppeteer and the audience – both with a shared distance, in common. It’s kind of magical to think about it this way.

Maybe you don’t know him for his puppet shows, but you probably know him for his interpretation of West Side Story. Either the late ‘50s Broadway hit or the early ‘60s movie. And if you still don’t know it, think Romeo and Juliet as a musical, with dancing street gangs of sorts, in a post-War America. 

When you watch the movie, you might notice how there’s always people watching other people dance. Another actor on stage, if not a group, observing. A kind of second-person experience in the storytelling. 

This is how an aspiring puppeteer understands action and drama. With others closeup and reacting. Nothing exactly solo, nothing exactly from too far away. 

Twyla Tharp calls understanding this type of perspective observational focal length. 

Tharp says it’s a central part of the creative DNA within every great creator. They either write from the perspective of first-person action, second-person experienced action, or third-person observed action. Very few artists can successfully move around between these perspectives.*

The moving around is part of what makes creating hard. The moving around is part of what makes creations confusing. Understanding observational focal length as a concept can be a key tool in any creator’s toolkit. 

Say you’re a macro markets strategist. Say you’re talking to a person about unemployment and trying to warn them just how bad the job market is but they still have a job, don’t know anyone who’s been laid off, and are looking back at you quizzically. What’s going wrong here? 

A mismatch in observed focal lengths. 

Say you’re a brand strategist. Say you’re talking to a small business owner about how to get more clients and they previously have only worked from word-of-mouth referrals. They don’t want to pay for ads and essays, and you don’t know how to tell them it’ll help their top-of-funnel blah blah blahs. What’s going on here? 

A mismatch in observed focal lengths. 

Say you’re a speaker. Say you’re addressing an audience you’ve never been in front of before. Say you take a minute to talk to them and note just what perspective they seem to be operating from before you start offering them your strategically organized story. What can you do?

Match the observed focal length for impact. 

Robbins could render his perspective within a work of art. The rest of us non-choreographers can regularly strive to render it in our communication strategies. And, if we note this framing of perspective, we can turn our communication strategies at least a little bit more into effective performances. 

It’s such a simple idea – but it’s such a powerful one. 

What observational focal length are you hard-wired to create in? 

How can you adjust your stories to different distances? 

What stories work at one distance, but not another? 

If you want to make sure your message is in focus, don’t forget observational focal length. 

h/t Twyla Tharp for this concept. The Creative Habit is (still) as essential a read as is watching West Side Story. Move clip below. Watch the action around the action!

* for a good reason – being good and “matched” from ONE perspective is hard enough. If you want to jump around and “match” on multiples perspectives, it takes a whole other level of skills (think: Shakespeare, Bach, etc.)

Ps. my wife tells me I should remind you West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet which is a TRAGEDY (not exactly a “fun, date night musical” unless you know where to pause it) 

Pss. The ’90s band Schlong put together the best punk cover versions of the musical’s score and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it here. See below for an introduction.