Having ownership of your creative career can sometimes feel like a paradox. Despite my successes, a decade of the audition process had left me feeling as if I was surviving rather than thriving. Explore how I started to shift this thinking, and discover a powerful question that can start to help you take control of your creative career.
Back to the future
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. Kierkegaard
My teenage years are all a bit of a blur. I remember leggings and body tops, lumberjack shirts and stone washed jeans. I was mad about Knight Rider, my ZX Spectrum 64 and Erasure. Nobody understood me, I hated secondary school and I wrote very depressing poetry which I thought was seminal. When I join the dots backwards to the beginning of all this teenage chaos, I surprisingly find the point of origin that helped me start to understand how to thrive in the creative industry.
Joining up the dots
When I was twelve, I was preparing to sing a song called The Golden Bird by Max Reger for a solo song competition in the Manx Music Festival. Now, don't be deceived into thinking this music festival was a lovely tea and scone affair. It was an adrenalin junkie experience with little time for a casual scone. For context, the Manx Music Festival (locally known as the Guild) is an annual pilgrimage for the island's musicians, singers, dancers and actors to compete and win medals for various degrees of mastery. This already sounds like a pressure cooker of an environment. But there's more...
The festival takes place on the Isle of Man, an island whose size is so small that to be able to swing a cat, it had to cut off its tail. As a result, every April, your musician friends become your competitors. Your neighbour's hellos aren't quite as chirpy. And in April 1985, Reger's song, The Golden Bird was practiced each day by over twenty, twelve year old girls in school practice rooms and living rooms across the island.
The point of origin
When I was twelve, my singing teacher was Janice Percival. A week before the competition I was at her house having a final lesson. Half way through the lesson, Janice asked me to stop singing and create a picture of what this golden bird looked like and why it sang in the cherry tree. I gave her my best withering teenage look. But Janice was hardened to these looks and continued on with her questions about the life of the golden bird.
To answer these questions, we started to talk about how some of the pictures in the living room could help me visualise the song's environment, we looked out at the garden to watch the garden birds singing and nesting and read a poem about bird song. We thought about what I would see when I sang each line and why I sang it. And I understood. No longer was this song made up of a set of notes that I had to sing to perfection to get a distinction. That didn't matter anymore. What did matter was telling the story of this brave bird and its dreams of gold.
On the day of the competition I was very nervous. So nervous in fact, I was sick in the toilets before I sang. When I walked out onto the stage, I faced an auditorium that was a mock of the Royal Albert Hall. In front of me sat my twenty or so competitors, their families, an audience of festival followers, the press, and the adjudicator sitting in a box that looked like a toilet cubicle. Then a surprising thing happened. My nerves left me. It wasn't about me anymore. It was about the golden bird and I wanted to tell his story.
Why do you create?
When I sang The Golden Bird, it was the first time I experienced being in flow. Today, this remains a powerful sense memory for me. I followed this memory and filtered through my body of work to explore what helps me work in flow today. Through this reflection, I unpacked the reason why I get out of bed to think, create, audition and learn new repertoire as well as what I need from my creative process.
Knowing who we are as an artist and human being, understanding what we need from our creative environment and process and why we create, is the heart line of our work. When we lose sense of this, perhaps because of personal or artistic issues, or we feel demotivated by industry expectation or even devalued, join the dots backwards and reclaim the artist you are. One way to begin this process is with a powerful question. Take this brilliant question, substitute the word acting for singing and ask yourself:
"If you take a moment to think about acting when you're most enjoying it, the times you can really say to yourself, Aaah, this is why I do this. What comes up for you?"
Justina Vail, How to be a Happy Actor in a Challenging Business: A Guide to Thriving Through it All; 2012, p45
That's a winner, chicken dinner
Did I win the singing competition? Yes I did. And it was the first competition I'd ever won. I continued to compete in the festival until at twenty, I left the island for music and drama college. Looking back, the Manx Music Festival was the place where I started to explore the beliefs, values, dreams and approaches I have as an artist today. But this article isn't about winning trophies. It's about the journey. It's about discovering what you need to thrive. If you feel personally or creatively stuck, it also means that you can choose to be unstuck. Ready to start the adventure?
Interested in finding out more about thriving in a creative industry, read this brilliant article by Justina Vail
Want to know even more, then read her fantastic book
Although these next steps are actor centered, the knowledge and experience shared is applicable to other creative practices.