When I was a kid, I took a few drama lessons. I loved the idea of acting, as I think many kids do. But at some point I hit the awkward teenage years and there was no chance I was going to put myself in the limelight. I preferred one to one chats, reading quietly, and small groups at best.
So imagine what a surprise it is to me to find that I’d be interviewing actors, directors and producers as my day job…
I’ve been blessed enough to listen to some of the best talk about their craft. What they do, what they don’t do, how they live. As a wannabe creative myself, the lessons I’ve taken from these conversations have been perspective-altering.
Here are a few of the take aways that I have gathered from my time working alongside these creative folk:
You might as well just be yourself
Might sound strange coming from professional pretenders, but what I’ve really picked up from working with actors is the power of what you, as an individual, can authentically bring to the fore.
Acting requires you to get tough to criticism, much of which can be unceremoniously delivered right to your face in a casting room. It also can get directly personal — about how a person looks, their ethnicity, their gender, etc (the not-so-nice people in industry, of course. Not everyone is like this!). Things that are inherent to who you are can become a target, which can be very painful to process.
For anyone hoping to share creativity with the world, there’s going to be an element of what feels like personal attack. It’s only natural if you’ve created something that required you to be vulnerable.
But the actors who do best are the ones who embrace whatever it is that makes them who they are and then works with it. There’s no point pretending you’re the next Brad Pitt — we’ve already got a Brad Pitt. Comparison is a losing game. So you might as well just be yourself, do what you can individually do and find peace with who and what you are.
Embrace what you as an individual can offer. Doing otherwise is a waste of time.
Keep on offering
Being a creative and being a perfectionist often seem to go hand in hand. But most the time, generosity is way more important than being ‘good’. A commonly recurring theme, particularly from directors, is that they want to work with people who are open and giving — who keep on offering something to work with. I think this applies across many creative spheres.
It’s better to maintain this generosity of spirit and exercise those creative muscles, rather than clamping down on a set way to approach things. That’s the basis of really exciting creativity, and particularly extends to any creative profession in which new big ideas are required.
It’s hard to be exciting when you only select out the first few ideas then shutdown all the potential avenues for exploration. Release yourself and let creativity be a tumbling mess if it has to; it’s freeing, and everyone prefers to be around someone who is interested, open to ideas and open to contributing. This leads right into…
Work first, criticise later
Actors are told to prepare something usually at short notice, workshop it into oblivion by themselves, then come in and face their harshest critics (literally, face to face). But what they have to learn quickly is the importance of just going with your gut. This is a lesson for all of us wannabe creatives: come up with your approach, your plan, and just do it.
Feedback comes, invariably, but you can’t start criticising yourself and others before you’ve actually done the work.
It can be really hard to turn off that internal monologue of critical feedback. But you have to do what you can to turn the volume down for a bit, so you can actually get work done.
Work has to come first. Criticism, refinement, lessons learned — all that comes later.
Discipline is everything and hustling is the norm
The thing most people may not realise about actors is that, once they leave training (or if they don’t professionally train), they’re very much on their own to keep up the craft. Much like writing, and many other creative pursuits, discipline is everything, because there’s probably nobody over your shoulder setting a deadline for what you do. The work any individual actor puts into their profession comes back to them — but they absolutely have to hustle.
Actors often end up with a very unstable income stream — long periods in between jobs of no to low income. So they have to learn to hustle, and this usually means picking up a little bit of everything in the arts. Many actors I know are also writers, directors, workshop leaders, teachers, podcast hosts, etc. They have the discipline and drive to keep on making things happen for themselves.
This has absolutely inspired me; the more projects I’m turning out, the more inspired and excited I am. Burnout is always a danger. But showing up to your craft every day is what sets apart the real creative from the wannabe. We learn a balance with time, and experimentation.
You can finesse forever, but at some point you have to let go
Actors are often given very little notice about an audition, but still have to do as much preparation as they can before they have to do their best to nail a potential job. It’s time constrained, and high pressure. Regardless of how much time they are given, though, one of the most powerful pieces of advice given by directors and casting directors alike is this: you can prepare as much as you like, but eventually you do just have to let go.
It can be easy to feel like “I should do more” or “I could have done more”. But beating yourself with this particular stick gets pretty unsustainable. After all, you’ve got to be able to pick yourself up and move on and keep working. I think the best way around this is to set deadlines for yourself, if none are externally imposed — this definitely goes for any creative who writes, paints, designs, etc on a freelance basis. Create your own stopping point where you will agree with yourself that you’ve done enough.
Deliver your project, and then and only then, reflect on what was achieved.
By time-boxing creation, delivery and reflection, you give yourself the space to actually finish things, which is vital to ever really progress in your chosen creative path.
Give it all you got — in the right moment
One thing that really strikes me about actors is their energy. I am not a high energy person — I am just not interested in throwing myself about, and I tire quickly from social contact, introvert that I am. But soon I learned that what I perceived from actors to be constant high energy wasn’t always the truth.
In many cases, actors are busy conserving and honing and building up — they use their energy in just the right moment. I have definitely started to apply this to my own ‘performances’ in life.
I treat the moments before I am ready to ‘perform’ as my quiet honing period. I regularly have to explain my creative ideas, hold meetings and discussions with lots of people, interview individuals for articles, host podcasts, etc. All of these are my opportunities to ‘perform’.
Where in the past I might have started freaking out or getting tired before an important talk, meeting, interview, whatever, now I treat all the time before as light and airy. They are the build up; I don’t have to waste energy exerting myself before I have to go ‘on’. I conserve and wait for my moment.
It’s just a mental shift — it’s not that I’ve changed my preparation processes or really much of anything in the ‘pre-performance’ phase — I’ve just mentally readjusted my attitude. Everything before I have to be ‘on’ is ‘off’.
When I do sit down and pick up the pen, or open up the laptop, then I’m ‘on’. It’s time for my creative play to begin.
Creativity is a tricky beast. But by taking a look at how different disciplines approach their craft, I believe we can learn a lot about our own journey towards creative fulfilment. The world of TV, Film and Theatre has given me a lot. We might not all make art the same way, or with the same kind of attention, but we can all grow by sharing what we know.