You know who I love? Theatre makers. People who make new theatre. People who say “I’m not sitting around waiting for someone else to employ me anymore. I’m going to write something myself. Or maybe with you, because you’re funny and I’m bitter and together we’ll make a great team.” I love these people, because they’re inspiring and they move our creative industries forward. I learnt a valuable lesson when I graduated from WAAPA. Don’t look at the moulds that already exist and try to fit into one. Carve out your own.
But it’s not always that easy.
I want to talk about this idea because it seems to be floating around in the collective acting consciousness at the moment. We are actors, but also singers, also writers, also directors, sometimes also producers. We are also composers, dancers and painters. Of course we’re not geniuses in every art form, but as creative individuals we’re drawn to multiple forms of expression and we often have skills in a number of areas.
My last column was about creativity and I don’t want to harp too much on the same subject. But I do believe that there is essentially the creative instinct and as soon as you start tapping into it, it just wants to get out. Sometimes it releases itself through text, sometimes through song, sometimes through drawing and although it is very romantic and Renaissance of us to act on these impulses, it can play havoc with our desire to live in the modern world with financial stability and a definable career.
A friend of mine is struggling with this at the moment. He is so passionate about acting and trained with me at WAAPA, but is not getting much work. So where does he put his energy? He has started writing a show, but feels a little like he is fumbling around in the dark. He is Assistant Directing a play, but as second in charge he doesn’t get to exercise his creative muscle much at all. From the outside, this doesn’t look like a terribly disappointing existence, but the main problem for him is trying to define himself. Is he an actor? If he chooses acting, surely he should put all his energy and money into doing 57 acting courses and classes and read every play ever written. But he is also a beautiful singer. So perhaps he should just concentrate on that and do what singers do and study at a Conservatorium in Vienna and steam 20 times a day and listen to Puccini in the shower. But he also dances. So maybe he should go back to class and the gym and pilates and fake tan himself and live on a strict diet of linseeds and cigarettes.
When you’re a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, how do you know what to identify with and where to put your focus? I’m constantly introducing myself like this: “I’m a musical theatre performer. No, wait. I’m an actor, who sings. Also I dance, well I did. I haven’t been to class much recently. It’s more accurate to say I’m a cabaret performer. But only by default. That only happened because I was writing a column. So I guess I’m a writer, again by default. But I’m not just a writer. I’m an artist… in the abstract sense, in the multi-faceted, all-encompassing sense because… Ok let’s be honest. I teach kids musical chairs and space-jump. But only by default.”
There is absolutely no point trying to define ourselves. It’s always changing. And what use is there in ruling out a part of our personality just because the world doesn’t appear to be providing an appropriate opportunity? If I decided to reject performing and throw myself exclusively into a writing career, a part of me would die. The best thing we can do is embrace the skills we have and discover how best to use them right now.
“You live a meaningful existence if you add to life, not take from it.”Complicite, a prolific and completely unique theatre company in the UK, was started by four Lecoq graduates because “they were sick of not working and wanted to make theatre that they weren’t seeing.” Now it is one of the pre-eminent theatre companies in Europe and their work is extraordinary. Much closer to home, you have writers and theatre makers like Warwick Allsopp and Tamlyn Henderson who write whatever they damn well want to and have no desire to fit their work into any pre-existing mould. They started by sending each other amusing text messages and eventually had the creative insight to turn these into a show. What inspires me is their courage to be themselves in their process of invention. Their work is a fusion of bizarre scenarios, fringe of society characters and hilarious word play. They have carved out a niche in the industry and are now enjoying much success. But they have done it on their own because, no doubt, they were sick of not working and wanted to make theatre that they weren’t seeing.
Of course the term theatre-maker doesn’t exclusively refer to writers. My friend Jason Langley is directing a little gem of a play at the moment called “Here Lies Henry” in the Sydney Fringe. It’s a one-man show and together they have crafted a beautiful, intelligent and wild exploration of what it is to be human. It’s a piece of writing that pushes the boundaries and may never have been seen if a couple of people hadn’t joined forces and just decided to do something.
I’m not suggesting everyone gives up their day job and goes running through the streets blowing bubbles and doing street art and whatever the hell they feel like. I just think it’s better to use our time and skills working on what is meaningful and exciting for us, however that takes shape, rather than trying to work out what archetype we most suit. Today my friend passed on a lovely quote; “You live a meaningful existence if you add to life, not take from it.” I thought it was a beautiful yardstick for us as artists, because it allows us to not think so narrow-mindedly about our own personal success, but instead consider how we can contribute to our collective creative landscape.