I was invited to a high school today to talk with senior drama students about various things that were of interest to them. It was quite informal, though they composed some thoughtful questions which I made notes on before we met. There was no way we could cover all of them so here are their Q’s and my responses. I wasn’t as longwinded as this when we spoke.
What made you want to go into this field? Was there a key moment or person that inspired you? Hamid
I really enjoyed performing, in that strange, nervous way that you do when you’re young, but I wasn’t sure that I was any good at it, because I wasn’t a great singer, or actor, really. I was a good performer, and may still be so. When I combined music and performance with my own quirky heart, things got difficult, but interesting. If I look back, it was people who’d assumed some kind of performance persona (not ‘character’) that I was inspired by – Barry Humphries, Norman Gunston, David Byrne and others – most of whom traversed music and performance. An early influence was being taken to see Phillipe Genty, a French visual theatre company who made it to Townsville – that probably accounts for certain features of my practice. 10 years later I ended up auditioning for them.
How old were you when you first got into Creative Industries? Thierry
I got my first creative job at 16, as a guitar accompaniment to an entertainer who was playing Tom Lehrer songs in Townsville Bowls clubs. I did creative work such as artist’s modelling while at uni. I got my first job as an actor at 21, which is quite unusual, and while I was doing that, was playing music in coffee shops and pubs
How did you get into the Creative Industries? Maddie
I was interested in the arts at school – music, film and visual art as well as performance – this informed my decision to go study Drama instead of Arts/Law which was my other option – and then at the end of uni I auditioned for a few companies and got a job with one of them as an actor/musician – then I did 11 years freelance work in which I built up my skills and creative relationships as well as studying.
Did you start off acting and then branch off into directing? Or had you always known that you wanted to be a director? Lillian
In some ways I was performing my way to becoming a writer. Once I’d written a few things the opportunity emerged to direct them. It’s not something I’ve pursued with a lot of energy – for me, it’s been incidental to the creation of new works – and there are so many better directors out there I won’t do it unless I’ve got something to learn or there’s another good reason for it.
Who mentored you? How much self-coaching happens? Will
I’d have liked a mentor, actually, but I hadn’t ever entered into a formal mentoring agreement until I became a mentor myself much later on – the word wasn’t used very often when I started out, but there have been a few people of influence.
The director who selected me for my first professional job – Sean – on reflection I realise I wanted him to be more of a mentor than he was (that’s a kind of mentoring!) his influence was fundamental, but also incidental. One incident was when he told me I was a good comic actor. Nobody’d ever said that before, and I found that surprising and strengthening. Later on I was able to give him a job too, when I asked him to direct a show I was writing, and we later became workmates at QUT.
Another mentor was Judith, a woman who critiqued my work in terms of gender. I really didn’t like it at the time, but it was really useful feedback that I’ve carried with me. She also encouraged me to teach. There have been others who put new opportunities, challenges or left-field suggestions in my way – it was often un-sought for or unexpected.
I do a lot of self-coaching, I suppose, though I’d never called it that. I’m a very curious person, so I’m driven to find out stuff, but I’m also quite disciplined and ready to work very hard, for little material reward to bring an idea into the world. Plays don’t write themselves.
I also really thrive on collaboration, which generates its own energy.
Throughout your journey in becoming a director, what support did receive that allowed you to follow your career path? Jake
Having supportive parents is a good start, having teachers and lecturers at uni who are prepared to engage with, critique and encourage you, as well as having professional colleagues or superiors who are willing to share their resources with you to make something new. Being a white middle class guy helps. You can’t deny the fact that theatre is mainly made for and by the middle and upper classes, but you also can’t let this stop other voices and presences enriching an artform that should be more inclusive. It’s our responsibility, sometimes, to step aside, speak back to power, make room or give someone a leg-up.
What is your best advice for someone wanting to get into the Creative Industries? Grace
Let go of simplistic ideas about success that you’ve been spoon-fed.
Work out what your practice/s is/are, and keep working at them, while remaining open to new variances on it. Tertiary education will help in this regard.
Remain open to collaboration it’s a skill – you will ALWAYS need to work with others to make art.
Be prepared to get another job which resources/enables your creative practice.
Is there a particular personal quality or attribute one needs to possess to work in the Creative Industries? Mr P
We’re all quite different people doing quite different things, so for each of us the answer will be different. Curiosity, tenacity, resilience and a willingness to work with others on something that’s bigger and better than you.
WRITING AND DIRECTION
What style do you most enjoy writing or directing in? Sam K
I wrote and directed a lot of non-verbal plays at first. These were often driven by music. Writing a play in which no-one speaks requires a lot of words. Directing a play like that requires an almost choreographic approach.
After having met the formulaic approach that screenwriting requires, in a head-on kind of way, I spent a bit of energy resisting standard story structures, and I now try to integrate, but not serve them. People like their stories to have handles on them they can grasp. Look at Robert McKee’s triangle – it applies to Theatre as well. Finally I enjoy making stories with strong or surprising images, that are visually or verbally poetic, that demand to be written for themselves (or myself), rather than for an imagined audience.
Is it challenging to bring your own interpretation to an existing text? How do you create your own dramatic meaning with someone else’s work? What is your relationship to ‘compromise’? Jake
I generally try to make new works. I’m a bit bored by the way theatre, in particular, keeps on re-hashing ideas and plays, but if I’m honest that may be because that’s not where my skills lie.
My last adaptation of another’s work was of The Little Prince – I was most interested in finding a performance language that would enable the story to be told within the envelope of time and resources that we had. Whatever ‘interpretation’ you have must always be responsive to what, pragmatically, you have at your disposal. Those constraints can be quite inspiring actually.
I think that coordinating a group vision of a work is the key task for the director – to ensure that everyone’s doing the same play.
In terms of compromise I’d quote the drummer of Radiohead, Phil Selway, who said that each of their albums is essentially a product of the compromises they’ve made along the way.
Some of those compromises are going to be discoveries that are better than what you had in mind in the first place.
In rehearsal, what do you find is the most effective way to communicate with your actors? Grace
I refuse to play the game that actors or acting are ‘special’. I find that idea really annoying, so I just try to be practical. I try to make the process transparent. To make clear the nature and dimensions of the task that must be achieved, in small and large scale, so we can work together to achieve the same goal. Sometimes this means being honest about it if I’m lost or searching for a solution.
Finally I would say, when you’re watching a scene unfold in rehearsal, you can usually think of about a dozen things that could improve it – but an actor can only usually work with two or three of these ideas at a time, so prioritise what’s more important, and keep a record of the rest.
Tell them if they’re doing something well too – we often forget that.
What would you say is the hardest aspect of directing? Why? Lily
The ability to multi-task while maintaining overall clarity, as well as balancing extremely thorough preparation with an openness to discovery.
Planning is really important – you’re clearing space in which creative things happen – but it can take up a lot of your time.
If an actor does not understand your direction, how do you get around that? Heidi
Part of it’s in the casting – I try to work with people who will understand, and don’t work with ignoramuses if I can avoid it.
People learn in different ways, so maybe it’s about finding a way of expressing ideas that both of you can share. It might be verbal, visual, physical or maybe an analogy.
You can force knowledge on people, but unless they fully integrate it into their performance in a way that’s meaningful for them, whatever you’ve apparently achieved will slip away sooner or later. It’s immediately evident once they’re onstage.
Finally some people just aren’t very good, or are a bit lazy or egotistical and that’s up to them.
Every director’s different. My aim is to set up a safe, mature space in which we can play creatively. It’s not the director’s job to look after the emotions of the actors, but you can’t ignore them either.
When you are directing, are you more physical or verbal? Do you model? R. Pitman
I am often quite physical. I like to use analogy to generate new approaches to performance problems. I am really into the rhythms of performance so try to divine and serve them, which sometimes involves demonstration/modelling, but this doesn’t work for everyone.
I don’t model moments because I want to perform them, more because it’s a quick, shorthand way of communicating something multi-modal that me sitting behind a desk and saying words loudly won’t achieve.
And I have done ‘modelling’, but probably not how you think!
How do you prepare your actors for the roles they will play if they are unfamiliar with the role? Kiara
To make sure they understand what we’re all working together to try to achieve. This includes the actor doing their homework. That’s their job.
What has been the hardest lesson you have learned as a playwright /director? Ally
To do something well, focus sharply on something seemingly simple, then go narrow and deep.
To do something badly, fail to find focus on within complex field, then stay broad and shallow.
That if you’re aiming to innovate in what you’re doing, work out how to make it accessible, so you can bring others – collaborators and audiences with you.
Where do you find inspiration/motivation for writing plays? Ally
Music, poetry and the urge to make something beyond me.
MUSIC & COMPOSITION
What instruments do you play? Chloe
Guitar, ukulele are my main ones. I’ve never considered myself much of a singer, which is probably why I invented a few personae, initially, to repurpose that fear, but I do sing quite a bit now. I suppose that’s an instrument. I’ve also played piano/keyboards, harmonica, penny whistle, accordion, bass, mandolin, cello, viola, violin; all sorts of things in the studio (often quite badly, but you can always erase a take), rehearsal or occasionally live.
Do you write the music for your plays? How do you approach composition? Ned
Yes, I do. I wrote or performed music for other people’s plays first and still do that occasionally. For my own plays I curated the music of others into the soundtrack at first – and lately have either started building shows around my songs, or writing music for scripts I’ve written that go into production. I’m thinking of The Empty City here – for that show I was interested in subverting how music is used in film (there was a lot of screen in the show) which is usually as wallpaper or emotional lubricant or boring signposts – I want the music to have its own life first, rather than being ‘written to order’ like it often is for films. However it was probably not a good idea for me to write the script AND compose, because there’s a certain friction and distance that’s useful when two or more minds collaborate conceptually (not only technically). I really like how music and performance talk to each other and I’m always looking for surprising conversations there.
Technically, I can’t read or write music notation, so gaining a level of practical skill on recording music has been useful – if I want to do it really well I’ll get an expert to help me – but there are things you can do on your laptop now that I could only dream of when I was playing with cassettes in the early nineties.
Which is better; performing or teaching? Rebekah
You learn from both . Every time you perform is the only time you perform – every time you teach is the only time you teach. Performance is doing something that usually serves a broader purpose, beyond yourself – teaching is more clearly enabling others to do. But the day to day repetition of performing I personally find challenging –I’m not set up to learn like that.
What is it like working at QUT? Kim
I’m part-time so that means I have time to do other stuff as well. I enjoy helping young artists find their voice – individually and in collaboration. I really enjoy researching, and learning myself, so it’s a good place to be. I can do good things in the small picture, and increasingly in the big picture to help others do what they want to do.
As I’ve said above, you learn a lot from teaching, and not just about what’s on the curriculum.
What do you find the most challenging within this field of work? Lily
Balancing family life, teaching and creative practice.
What advice might you have for people wanting to succeed in cinematic acting? Monique
Get real. Get good. Get better. It’s a craft, it’s not magic. It’s not fair. You might be a lovely person and quite skilled, but if you’re two inches too short you won’t get the job – but you may never find that out, and nobody likes being passed over for someone else. If that’s the kind of caper you’re into, look after yourself. Get another job. The dream that you’ll ‘be discovered’ is an easy sell, but is hard for me to buy. It’s not a very popular kind of thing to say.
It’s an unrealistic ambition to become a movie star. Feel free to prove me wrong. When you were little you might have wanted to become a fireman or a mermaid, and eventually you’ll look back on this ambition in the same way – having said that, it’s important to have a dream and use it to fuel your fumbling way towards something creative that perhaps you haven’t even identified yet. Don’t confuse applause with love.
In this room we all love the performing arts but specifically drama BUT many of us feel high levels of anxiety around performing. How would you advise we manage this feeling that can cost a performer so much. Chloe
Anxiety is a natural response to performing live. It goes without saying that you should be extremely prepared, and that if you haven’t done the required work, you probably deserve to feel bad.
Do what you need to do to make sure you’ve ‘arrived’ and are present, both physically and mentally. You’ve only got one body & brain so look after them. Make meaningful contact with your collaborators pre-show as appropriate – after all, you’re in this together, but focus on the job you have to do, just like someone playing a sport would, I guess. You’ve trained for this moment. Make it work as best you can within the given circumstances.
Anxiety disorders are a different matter that need medical assistance, a communication strategy around them and careful management.
If you’re nervous, don’t make your problem someone else’s problem. If you can’t handle nerves, work out a way you can, or get out. There’s not enough money or recognition in this game for you to keep on doing it if you’re having a bad time every time.
What’s your Favourite Colour? Ben