15 Things I learned in theatre school about creativity

learned in theatre schoolA lot of people I know who got Bachelors of Arts were kicking themselves after they graduated because they didn’t get a more “useful” degree. I didn’t have that problem – I knew that studying drama wouldn’t put me on a fast track to mega-success, but it was what I most wanted to do. I had always planned on going to university (all learning, all the time? You couldn’t keep me away if you tried). And drama was what I was most passionate about at the time.

Afterwards I decided not to pursue work in theatre and there are times when I wonder if I wasted those 4 (okay 5) years.

Then I remember everything I learned about creativity, productivity, and life. And I feel better.

Keep trying, eventually you’ll get the part

In high school I auditioned every year for the school play. One year I got to be a silent mime-type character. But it wasn’t until my final year that I was finally cast in a speaking, interesting role. In university it was a similar story. I kept auditioning, kept getting passed over, until I started getting to know people better and was suddenly recognized by the people holding the auditions, and finally started getting parts. Again, in my last year I was cast in an incredibly juicy role and I felt like it had all been worth it. Now I know the value of getting to know people and showing up on their radar. I know that if I keep working at it, eventually I’ll get the opportunities I’m looking for.

It doesn’t hurt to ask

I badly wanted some experience designing sets so in my third year I mustered up the gumption to ask the director of one of the student productions (who I had already gotten to know a bit through other projects), “Hey do you need a designer?” She already had one but brought me on as well. It was a great experience in collaboration, and I finally got the break I had been looking for. I try to remember this when I see something going on that is really exciting, though this is definitely something I’m still working on. The truth is, “Hey, do you need help with that?” isn’t such a hard question to ask.

Start with your body

The style of acting and performance creation that I learned was rooted in the body. We spent hours doing exercises to explore physical expression and discover what stories our bodies had to tell. More and more I’m learning to check in with my body when I’m trying to make a decision, and to use it as a creative starting point. As I’ve said before, it knows things that I don’t know.

Celebrate everything

After every show there was a party to celebrate our hard work. This is a practice I would like to re-instate. Hard work, and the culmination of creative effort, requires celebration. I can’t handle the full throttle parties of my university days, but I definitely appreciate the value of marking the occasion in some significant way.

Stop trying to be clever

We had one teacher that was famous for pounding the table or throwing shoes when he was displeased, and one of the things that displeased him the most was when an actor tried to be clever rather than sincere. You can’t act from your head – it needs to come from your body and your heart. The same is true of any art form – if it comes from a place of trying to be smarter than everyone or impressing people, it will fall flat. Creativity grows best in an environment of authenticity and genuine feeling and I try to remember this whenever I write, make art, or dance.

Energy, energy, energy!

When I was directing actors I saw that sometimes all it took to make a scene go from dull to delightful was the amount of energy the actors put into it. If they were lethargic, the scene would lag. When I was able to light a fire under them and they picked up the pace, their chemistry was visibly sharper and it made the dialogue sparkle. When I only show up halfway, I get halfway results. When I make sure to approach something well rested and with gusto I get that same sparkling effect in my work.

Act like you’re having fun – even when you’re not

In my third year we did a class that was half creative movement and half dance training. I did great in the creative movement section, but my dance marks were terrible. The reason? My teacher said that I didn’t seem to be having any fun while I was dancing – I was too busy concentrating and worrying about getting it right. I didn’t need to dance better, I just needed to ‘perform’ more. This is great advice for dancing and for life – smile through your struggles, find the humor and the joy in whatever you’re doing. I enjoy dance classes so much more now that I lift my chin, smile, and stop worrying so much about getting the steps just right. And I’m a better dancer. The same goes for teaching workshops. I put on a smile even when my stomach is churning, because I know that my students will feel more comfortable if I appear to be at ease.

How to do all the jobs

There was one year when I was writing a play, designing sets, acting, and directing – all on different projects. It was amazing. I was exhausted but the creative thrill was unbeatable. I got so much energy and so many ideas from all these different roles that were constantly feeding into each other. That’s how I learned that I’m multi-passionate. I also learned that whatever job needs to be done, I can figure out how to do it. That spirit of can-do has served me very well in learning how to create a website and market my products, and even in figuring out how to make my art in the first place.

You don’t need a lot of money

For our set designs we usually had a budget of around $100. That’s insanely low. This made us really stretch our imaginations to see what we could come up with. Can we change the mood by shaping the audience seating differently? Can we make cheap materials (like cardboard) part of the design aesthetic? It was challenging but so rewarding to push our creative boundaries and we were often forced to come up with something totally unexpected.

There is such a thing as working too hard and doing too much

I loved my time at university but the fact is that I was on the verge of collapse at every moment. There was one exercise where we would focus on a part of our body and then just start talking, to see what it had to say, and a partner would write it down. I immediately started bawling and couldn’t stop. My body was so tired it had nothing else to say. I’m all for pushing myself, but I work hard to take care of myself at the same time. After I graduated I realized that my degree was a great experience but that I never wanted to feel that level of pressure and stress ever again. Nothing is worth total emotional breakdowns.

Using characters in real life

Acting training has been so useful in many ways. I have no trouble expressing myself while belly dancing because when I put the costume on, I understand that I am playing the role of a flirty dancer – though I myself know nothing about flirting. Even as an introvert I’ve taught myself how to act like an extrovert when it’s called for. And because I learned to act with sincerity, these aren’t just masks that I wear, but genuine studies of human emotion and behaviour. Really they’re just different aspects of myself, but because I feel like I’m just playing a role, it doesn’t seem as hard.

Using words to remind you of what you want

In one class we learned to take “values” before every class, rehearsal, or performance. Basically these were words that guided how we wanted to feel and what we wanted to focus on, like “in the moment” or “calm” or “energy”. The one little word trend that has become so popular, and Danielle Laporte’s Desiremap system do the same thing – they give you a word to help guide your behaviour and keep you on track.

Work through the cliché

Sometimes when we create something, we feel like it’s all been done before, it’s so boring and irrelevant, how could anyone possibly care about this? I learned in drama classes to never resist impulses, even if they seemed clichéd, but to work through them until you find something more personal and genuine. The first drafts of most of my articles and blog posts are stiff and cliché-ridden and I often want to give up. But I know from experience that following the impulse and seeing what it leads to always brings me around to where I need to be.

The importance of warming up

We warmed up before every class, rehearsal and performance, and in one of my drama journals I read that a warm-up needs to fill you with energy and get you ready to work. It needs to get you moving, and get inspiration flowing. We warm up before dance classes, and I use my Draw Paint Print experiment to warm up before making art. Things go so much easier when I don’t jump in cold – when I start with something easier that will get the blood flowing.

Do you have experiences that have affected you deeply, even if they don’t seem connected to what you’re doing now? What have you learned?

And if you were a fellow drama major and you’re reading this, I expect a comment below – what did theatre school teach you?

 

 

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