Spark & Fire
A podcast that unlocks creativity and innovation. In each episode, a legendary creator shares the story behind an iconic work — with techniques and takeaways for your own work.
Spark & Fire is a WaitWhat original.
(Book: You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain)
There’s a commonly held belief that great creative work comes from pain. But comedian and writer Phoebe Robinson says that this is a myth. Instead, Phoebe believes great creative work comes from a place of joy. As Phoebe shares her personal story of writing her debut essay collection, You Can’t Touch My Hair, she draws on the things that bring her the most joy in life.
(Game: Exploding Kittens)
To make something irresistible, get to the fun part — fast. That’s how Exploding Kittens became one of the world’s most popular games. When cartoonist Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal) and game developer Elan Lee (former X-Box) designed the card game Exploding Kittens, they took fun very seriously.
(Series: Arrested Development)
When comedian David Cross read the pilot for Arrested Development, he immediately connected with the character Tobias Fünke, an absurd mix between East Coast intellectual and new-age hippie. As David shares his process of developing a totally unique character, on a sitcom that was ahead of its time, you’ll hear how he returns, again and again, to the idea of trust. Whether that’s trusting his instincts, trusting his collaborators, or trusting the writing on the show, David’s story shows how every great creative work relies on trust.
(Miniseries: When They See Us)
This episode follows the composer Kris Bowers’ personal story about composing the score for the culture-shifting and emotionally devastating work When They See Us. This award-winning series follows the true story of five boys, wrongfully accused in 1989 of the brutal rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. The narrative spans a quarter-century, from the night of the incident to their eventual exoneration as grown men. To tackle this project, Kris let emotion be his North Star. Allowing his emotions to guide him led him straight to the heart of the story — and inspired a score that connects the audience to the characters.
When the ABC show Cristela premiered in 2014, Cristela Alonzo made U.S. history, the first Latina to write, produce, and star in her own prime-time comedy. But this dream didn’t come easy: Cristela had to fight for her vision at every stage of the process. You’ll hear how she fights for the show she wants, to the very end — and never waits for permission to chase her next dream.
(One-person play: “Sakina’s Restaurant”)
In the 1990s, Aasif Mandvi was a struggling actor looking for roles that didn’t seem to exist. So he wrote Sakina’s Restaurant — a solo show about an Indian immigrant family who owns a restaurant in New York City. When Sakina’s Restaurant premiered off-Broadway in 1998, there was really nothing like it. In this episode, Aasif tells the story of writing and starring in this pioneering one-person play.
Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte started the band Pomplamoose together in 2008. The band found success with their viral YouTube videos, which have hundreds of millions of views. And while we usually tell the story of a single work on this show, in this episode, Jack and Nataly share the story of the band itself.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a creativity master. Many of us know him as an actor and director, but Joseph also co-created the media platform HitRECord. Joseph shares the journey of HitRECord from a page of HTML to a global community of creative collaborators. Joseph’s story reveals how you can take responsibility for your own creativity: Participate, find collaborators you love, and share your work with the world.
There’s an intimidating blank page. A blinking cursor staring you down. A looming deadline for a project you haven’t touched. Sometimes, starting something new is the hardest part of the creative process. In this episode, you’ll hear from 5 creative people in 5 different fields offering 5 different strategies for how to start something new.
Stephen Schwartz has a motto for songwriting: Tell the truth, and make it rhyme. In this episode, Stephen tells the story of composing the Broadway musical Wicked. Not only does Stephen reinvent a beloved classic for the stage, he also commits to drawing out the universal truths – like the experience of friendship, betrayal, and love – that connect us all.
(Production: Sleep No More)
Felix Barrett, MBE, is the artistic director of Punchdrunk, a British theater company that specializes in immersive storytelling. He shares the story of Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s longest-running show, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth through a film noir lens.
(Film: Turning Red)
When Pixar asked Domee Shi to create a feature film, it was a dream come true. But Domee had to learn how to own her unique creative voice with all eyes on her, which meant embracing her inner weirdo. As Domee shares the story of directing Turning Red, you’ll hear how she commits to seeing her outlandish ideas through and surrounds herself with people who can recognize a great, weird idea when they see one.
Finding the right collaborator, and growing together, is a creative feat. While songwriting duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez were writing the iconic songs to Frozen, they discovered the key ingredient to a successful and lasting collaboration: generosity.
(Work: Silent City)
Kayhan Kalhor shares the story of composing and performing “Silent City,” his epic 25-minute piece for the kamancheh (Persian spike fiddle) and ensemble. It’s a specific story about writing music to memorialize a devastating event, but the takeaway is universal: When life feels too much to bear, create art that means something — for yourself and for others.
(Visual art: “The Unicorn Tapestries”)
Deep in the pandemic, artist Mark Bradford began work on an epic series called “The Unicorn Tapestries.” It’s inspired by an iconic medieval work, but created with everyday materials that speak to Mark’s experience, layered and glued and scratched and etched away to create a tapestry like no other. As he shares each stage of his process, Mark shares a mindset that every creative person can use: Find what you need to fuel your creativity.
(Novel: The Dutch House)
When Ann Patchett sat down to read through her first draft of The Dutch House, she realized she had made a terrible mistake. A wrong turn, on page 36, sent the entire rest of the novel careening down the wrong path. So what’d she do? Deleted it and started over. Sometimes, committing to doing your very best work means destroying it and going again. In her own words, novelist Ann Patchett shares the story of writing her award-winning novel.
(Comedy specials: Annihilation and I Love Everything)
When comedian Patton Oswalt suddenly lost his wife, he also feared he would lose himself. As he processes his grief, Patton takes us on the journey of finding his voice again, through the making of two very different comedy specials: “Annihilation” and “I Love Everything.” You’ll hear how grief can give way to creativity — and creativity can forge a path through grief.
You hit a creative dead end. You’re lost in the forest of thought. Let’s face it: you’re stuck. But getting stuck is part of the creative journey. We’re sharing 5 strategies to regain your creative momentum, featuring Jurassic Park book designer Chip Kidd, Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes, Soul filmmaker Kemp Powers, as well as a sneak peek at Season 2 with comedian Patton Oswalt and Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz.
(Album: Whatever and Ever Amen)
Capturing an honest moment is one of the riskiest ways to create, but the results are real, and they stand the test of time. As musician Ben Folds tells the story of creating his breakout album Whatever and Ever Amen with the Ben Folds Five, you’ll hear a story about the choices – and pressures – that keep you honest.
The Silk Road Project was an ambitious idea: to not only create a category of music that had never been heard before, but create ensembles to perform it and audiences who were hungry to hear it. How did Yo-Yo Ma build this vision? He knew from the beginning that it wasn’t about him. With clarinetist Kinan Azmeh; percussionist Joseph Gramley; Galician bagpiper Cristina Pato; and pipa player Wu Man.
(Series: The Queen’s Gambit)
When screenwriter Allan Scott acquired the film rights to the “The Queen’s Gambit,” he couldn’t have imagined it would take almost 30 years to get that movie made. Allan, along with executive producer Bill Horberg, talk about their long road to turning the cult-favorite book into a Netflix phenomenon — and what they’ve learned about staying the course.
(Song: “Pedro Navaja”)
“It’s too long. It’s too sad. It’s not danceable” Just some of the feedback salsa legend Rubén Blades got from DJs and record labels about his iconic song “Pedro Navaja” on the album Siembra, which went on to sell 25m copies. His story of creating this album with Willie Colón is a testament to three words: Trust your instinct.
Named one of the top 5 podcast episodes, Arts & Culture, by the 2022 Webby Awards, and nominated for Best Individual Episode, Arts & Culture, by the 2022 Signal Awards
(Film: Always Be My Maybe)
How do you create something an audience will love? Start with everything you authentically love. Writer/actor Randall Park tells the story of a passion project: the 2019 Netflix movie he made with Ali Wong, Always Be My Maybe. Learn from his story how you can take what authentically matters to you – culture, music, relationships – and create work that will resonate for others too.
Nominated for Best Individual Episode, Television & Film, by the 2022 Signal Awards!
(Novel: Transcendent Kingdom)
To make a creative leap, get to know your creative self. Novelist Yaa Gyasi shares the creation process of her acclaimed new novel Transcendent Kingdom: how she found space, how she gave herself permission to pause – and how to get the feedback she needed.
(Album: The Democracy! Suite)
“Everything that you do in the arts is you giving meaning to your way of life.” In a year of pandemic, racial reckoning and threats to democracy, bandleader Wynton Marsalis created a seven-song cycle that imagines how artists can respond to their own time. As he talks us through “The Democracy! Suite,” he teaches unforgettable lessons about collaboration, preparation, and the costs and rewards of a creative life.
Nominated for Best Individual Episode, Music, by the 2022 Signal Awards!
(Film: Knives Out)
As Rian Johnson takes us on his journey of joyfully reinventing the murder mystery, his childlike playfulness is in full effect. But you’ll also hear how he structures his creative process to turn ideas into realities — and how he prepares ahead of time to be fully present in the creative moment. You’ll hear lots of creative hacks that you can borrow to fuel your own creative journey.
Named one of the top 5 individual podcast episodes of the year by the 2022 Webby Awards!
(Body of work: the Day to Night series)
Photographer Stephen Wilkes developed his Day to Night photo series to explore his passion for how time passes. Learn the story behind his image of the 2021 Inauguration as he explains how he developed his signature style – and where to start as you develop your own.
(Production: Between the World and Me)
What do you do with an idea so big it kind of scares you? Follow Kamilah Forbes’ journey in bringing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me to the stage of the legendary Apollo Theater (and then to HBO) in a story of collaboration and trust, joy and challenge.
Nominated for Best Individual Episode, Best Conversation Starter, by the 2022 Signal Awards!
(Building: The Vessel)
How do you change the creative brief? You start with play. Follow the journey of designer Thomas Heatherwick and “Vessel,” a massive piece of public art, from its roots in traditional Indian forms, to its sophisticated construction and multi-year assembly, to its reception by the public.
(Production: Afterwardsness, his pandemic masterpiece)
When faced with a crisis, how do you move forward? First, look backward. Dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones tells a powerful story of creative grit, love of art and reckoning with legacy — in his own fierce, fiery, funny words. With Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong, they offer inspiration to fuel your own creative journey.
Named one of the top 5 individual podcast episodes by the 2021 Webby Awards, and Best Individual Episode, Best Guest, by the 2022 Signal Awards.
(Novel: The House of the Spirits)
Isabel Allende was 39, a refugee looking for a lost sense of connection to her home. So she started writing a letter to her grandfather back in Chile. To tell him that the family stories he’d told her – of love, tradition, loss, magic – were safe with her. This letter, page by page, became the beloved epic The House of the Spirits. On Spark & Fire, hear how Isabel found the time and space to write.
(Book cover: Jurassic Park)
What do you do when you’re stuck? Something else. Designer Chip Kidd got a dream assignment: Create the book cover for a soon-to-be-blockbuster: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Oh, and make it iconic. Chip share how he got started and how he got unstuck — over and over — with lots of smart, actionable advice for anyone setting out on their own creative quest.
(Book: The Orchid Thief)
How do you move past a creative crisis? Apply pressure. From the moment she heard about it, Susan Orlean knew she had to tell the story of The Orchid Thief – a wild tale of obsession set in the swamps of Florida. But somewhere deep in the telling, she lost her own footing.
(Film: Pixar’s Soul)
How do you make an authentic character? Start with your authentic self. When screenwriter Kemp Powers joined the writers’ room at Pixar, he found a story waiting to be told … anchored within his own story. In his story, listen for the spark of your own creative journey.
Named one of the top 5 podcast episodes, Diversity & Inclusion category, by the 2021 Webby Awards.