Surviving the profession: developing yourself as a creative artist (Written for The Stage Newspaper 2015)
We dwell in a creative industry, The Performing Arts. You might have been drawn to it for the love of music and text, emotional and physical expression, the search for truth and real human connection, the thrill of moving an audience, and a myriad other indefinable reasons. However, let us take stock for a minute and consider whether we are managing to stay truly creative and expressive whilst juggling all the humdrum requirements of our everyday lives.
I suspect some of us are more likely to spend three hours catching up on our relationship with our mobile phones than reading a new play or learning a new song, unless it just can’t be avoided. And I believe that herein lies a problem. Whether we like it or not, we need to get back to nurturing our artistic selves. We need to discover what kind of artist we are, what speaks to us, what makes our hearts sing. What do we want to express, share, speak, write, or dance about? And I’m not talking about a Facebook update. I am talking about artistic passion and commitment. The discipline to invest in our artistry when not required to do so because of an impending audition or because you have been told at drama school or because you have to learn a mediocre script in an uninspiring play to pay the bills.
I think it is vital for performers to nurture themselves as artists outside the ‘audition’ arena. Auditions come and go. Erase and continue. It is remarkable just how many castings it takes to land a job. Many performers think they are the only ones either struggling to even get an audition in the first place or consistently getting down to the last two and then, after huge emotional, financial and practical investment, not getting the job. You are not alone. I experience so many truly experienced and accomplished performers going through this for months and sometimes even years, let alone recent graduates. It is very hard to keep up ones positivity and self- belief at such a time. However there is, I believe, one solution and that is to stay creative.
Creativity takes discipline. It takes putting your phone away and taking time out to assess where you are at. And this assessment should not be based on your public ‘success’, on how others assess your ‘talent’, whether you were ‘successful’ at drama school or in your latest performance, on how approachable and understanding your agent is, whether you have an agent, or whether you have earned a living as a performer recently. This assessment should be based on your own commitment to your craft. And I mean ‘craft’ in all its aspects. Maintaining your craft requires time and organization. It means being truly alive with your passion. Exploring it, researching things you care about, searching for new repertoire, organizing time and physical spaces to practice, taking classes, seeking out professional coaches who have the experience to take your skills to a higher level, connecting to fellow performers, committing with care and rigor to learning new texts, songs, pieces, routines. Thinking about which recent live performances have made you feel alive and amazed and why. Thinking about political and social issues you care about. Really listening to music, going to plays, reading good books and papers, going to talks and seminars, learning from great artists, engaging in discussions, researching new and exciting directors, writers, composers, choreographers. Thinking about your strengths and what defines you as an artist and developing these. What is your artistic identity, what would you perform given an hour at a busy theatre, what do you care about? What kind of performer are you on stage?
There is something terribly comforting and rewarding about executing a small task perfectly. Choosing one text, one song, one piece of choreography you love and carefully learning it, researching its performance history, spending time with it over several weeks, stripping back the layers of text, learning the rhythm, making specific creative decisions, understanding the large and small arches of a piece, the rhythm, where it drives. Taking the time to learn repertoire carefully and with precision and knowing you have mastered it, is exhilarating. Especially when it is a piece which means something to you. A piece you have chosen because you are crazy about it, because it enables you to express something. Not because you have been told to learn it for an audition. It is so important to keep a little bit of your artistry in a separate realm from the expectations of others or the requirements of castings.
Many performers have mixed feelings about spontaneously being asked to perform. It can feel a little like being a ‘performing monkey’. Furthermore, when it is what you do professionally, you want to be prepared, warmed up, ready to execute something at a level you are happy with if it is to be a public display. As much as I fully understand and support this view, I think it is important to be generous with your craft. This can be entirely on your own terms, when you choose to be, when you are ready to be. Art, music, dance, literature, belong to us all. I was on holiday on a Greek Island recently, sitting on a rooftop, drinking a glass of wine. It was fairly quiet, with the tourist season over. All of a sudden a rich soprano voice coming from a nearby taverna soared above the rest of the hustle and bustle, which fell quiet in order to listen. We paid the cheque and went to investigate. One of the customers sitting at an outside table, clearly a highly trained professional soprano, had stood up at her table in order to sing a couple of songs. People started to gather. There was applause from nearby restaurants. One song followed another. From Puccini to Gershwin. It was brave, spontaneous and made you smile. It reminded me of the power of the human voice. And it was lovelier than a recent night out at a theatre in the West End.
Why is it that many singers have to be pushed to create a concert or show? Why is it that many actors have to be pushed to put on their own play or reading? London is awash with cheap fringe venues. When a casting director or young producer posts a two- week run of a small scale show they are casting on Spotlight, there will be an overwhelming number of applicants. And it’s probably a pay of a couple of hundred quid, if you’re lucky, for three weeks of rehearsals and a short run. But performers can organize this themselves! Why do drama school graduates wait for their agent to find them something to do? If you’re not working as a performer, find something you want to perform, find a venue, find an audience and get on with practicing and executing your craft. Use each other. Make something happen with fellow creatives. Creatives tend to be incredibly open and generous. Perform in old peoples’ homes, in hospitals, in schools, at festivals, in cheap fringe venues, at pubs and clubs with performance nights and at parties. I have seen time and time again that those performers I work with, whether they be actors, dancers or singers, who are creative, who learn things, who enjoy their craft and create performance opportunities for themselves, are the ones who end up working. And those performers I work with who are already successful and established, tend to share their craft, when they are ready to, in order to brighten up someone’s day, to help a charity or support new writing. We are rich in resources as performers, especially in this country. It is quite remarkable how easy it is to book a couple of hours in to work with the top coaches and industry professionals in the business. If you have an idea or a piece that needs work, finding an expert to help you with it is child’s play. People in the Performing Arts are on the whole incredibly generous and open to meeting and discussing ideas. Performers need to make the most of this. There are many tough challenges in this job, but there are also many opportunities and possibilities which are much easier to access than in other professions.
We are lucky. Engaging in creativity is one of the few things which never fails to give back to you. We live in an age of mobile devices and computers and celebrity culture. Things are meant to happen fast. And yet, in my experience, anything worthwhile takes time and effort. There has to be a place in your life where you live beyond the approval of others. A place where you know what you care about and what you want to work on and spend time developing. And if surviving the every day has taken that sense away from you, take time to get it back. Structure your day, start writing lists, do whatever it takes to explore and develop yourself as an artist on your own terms. And in this way, no matter what the outcome of your next audition or review, you are building a solid and worthwhile foundation.