Between Acting Jobs: Cultivating Creativity and Self-Development
John Currivan continues his series on life between acting jobs, this time delving into how actors can cultivate their creativity and find ways to develop themselves further...
We actors need to be creative and well-rounded to do our work. However, the nature of our work means that we are, quite often, unemployed. The lack of work sometimes takes a toll on our creativity and development, just like an abandoned garden gathers lots of dead plants, overgrown weeds and hidden pockets of fox poop. So, here’s some advice for cultivating creativity and maintaining your skills so that, like contrary Mary, you can choose how your garden grows.
Assess where you are, what you want and planning ahead
The first thing any gardener would do, is look at their garden and see what needs to be done. Actors, however, are both the gardener and the garden, in one package. Take a step back from yourself and give an honest assessment. Ask: What are my strengths/weaknesses? What do I love doing and seeing? What do I want to do? And sometimes more importantly: What don’t I want to do? Asking these questions regularly helps us touch base with ourselves and highlights where our attention and growth is most needed.
Assessing strengths and weaknesses is awkward though. It is hard for us to admit to our own shortcomings and sometimes even own up to our strengths, but we can’t improve things we don’t know about. Maintaining strengths seems simple, however, there’s always room for improvement. Explore new styles, new techniques, and extend yourself into areas you’ve never been before.
Improving weaknesses is tougher. It’s difficult to know where to start. Luckily though, we live in an age where we can start RIGHT NOW! (Or at least after you’ve finished this article). Once you’ve found a skill that you want to develop, Google it, YouTube it, check your local library for books on it. There might even be classes in your area.
Self-development and growth are worth it for their own sake and might give you the right kind of edge to stand out in an audition someday. Knowing your strengths can also help to bolster your self-worth and help you rediscover your own power and drive for performance work.
Seek out new things
It’s time to see what’s been growing in other gardens and steal some samples for re-planting into your own. Artists need to seek out art! See new shows. Watch new movies. Read new books. ‘New’ here means both new releases and things you’ve never seen before. Look for art that will inspire you. If you’re unsure where to find it, my best advice is to ‘look big and look local’. Look big means keep up to date on the heavy movers and shakers in the industry. Investigate what’s coming up on Broadway, the West End, the Oscars and BAFTAs, as well as Netflix. Look local means scope out what’s happening down the road. Are there open mic or comedy nights on in local pubs? Is your local theatre producing anything? Does your library, DVD/charity shop have movies you’ve never heard of? You may end up seeing some stuff you don’t enjoy, but I’ve personally been very inspired by reflecting, discussing and let’s face it… complaining about the things I’ve hated. Try to attend as many post show Q+A sessions with creatives that you can find. You’ll get to hear these artists speak about their process, maybe even ask a question, which may give you ideas and energy to help you approach your own work. Besides, you’re not going to win any gardening contests if you don’t know what the competition looks like.
Unplug from virtual reality and observe actual reality
Social media and online streaming means that we are never short of content in our hunt for inspiration. We could very easily sit there and consume podcasts, movies, TV shows and online articles all day, like human hoovers in a buffet restaurant. This is fine to do now and again, but if we aren’t selective or mindful of what we consume then we have less control over what comes out. (Ugh… Food was a bad metaphor to use). The same applies to art. If we are constantly absorbing information, we are creating and releasing none.
I mentioned a bit in my previous article about actively using your side-gig as research and a source of inspiration. Use hobbies too. Do a crossword, a puzzle, a walk, a jog, a swim. Performing simple physical or mental activities can awaken different parts of your brain and you might discover something completely new or view familiar things with a fresh perspective. Technology provides us with some amazing resources for learning, but often it becomes a distraction, or worse, a crutch and comfort blanket. We must give ourselves headspace and clarity to digest and reflect on our experiences and leave space for our curiosity and imagination. Get deliberately bored. When you’re bored you can start occupying yourself with your own thoughts. You can start to, ‘Look, Listen and Question’.
Imagine you’re on a crowded train. Start actively noticing your surroundings. Pick out faces in the crowd. Look at the individuals. Ask: How are these people dressed? Where might they be going? Oh look, a handbag. What's in it? A purse? Keys? Lipstick? Money from a bank robbery? Plans for a government coup? A portal to dimension X? What's in the bag? WHAT'S IN THE BAG!?
This line of questioning can lead to really fun, imaginative places. All this before you’ve even started noticing sounds, textures and smells. (Please be advised that smelling others is done at your own risk).
This is only one little exercise to wake us up and reminds us that curiosity is a valuable trait. It makes us ask questions and since we're aiming to be creative, not correct, our answers can be as imaginative and ridiculous as we want. The difficulty these days, is that technology makes it easy for us to ignore the real world happening around us, but honestly, that’s where the best stuff happens.
Pursue your passion project
One last thing our garden needs is a place just for us. Somewhere we can return to when we need to lift ourselves from slumps of apathy. A secret grove. A passion project. Got a story you want to tell? A song you want to sing? A role you want to play? A play you want to write!? Do it. These projects are not always for public consumption, they can be just for ourselves. Do you dream of performing a reggae rendition of the ‘Singing in the Rain’ soundtrack as sung by Chewbacca from Star Wars? Go right ahead. There’s nothing stopping you.
Just like using the gym, the more you work and the more you stretch, the more strength and flexibility you'll have as a performer. Passion projects keep us alive and awake, they are the songs we sing in the shower, the monologues we love reciting and the doodles we draw at staff training days when we should be paying attention. They can be as big or as small as you need them to be. And while our passion projects may never reach full production (getting the rights for ‘Wookies in the Rain’ would be a nightmare) you never know... Unemployed actors have created:
- The Podcast, 'Inside the West End’ which is a series of interviews with a variety of Theatre creatives making waves in London and abroad
- A Satirical TV reporter called 'Jonathan Pie’ who became a YouTube sensation and now sells-out comedy tours around the UK
- 'The Play That Goes Wrong’ which has been a West End fixture for years and is now also on Broadway
- 'It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ a US TV show on course to be one of the longest running sitcoms ever
- And little-known hip-hop history play called ‘Hamilton’ which you've probably never even heard of...
Looking after and developing your garden of creativity, can sometimes end up with a professional payoff but where it is really valuable is in reminding you who you are, why you're in this crazy business and what kind of gifts you want to offer the world.
John is an Irish actor living in London. He started his career in Clondalkin Youth Theatre and trained in the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. He has worked and toured with productions internationally, and starred in The Commitments, in the Palace theatre and on The UK and Ireland Tour. He has written scripts for radio, stage and also for comic books.