Creativity, motivation, and failing well … Twyla Tharp

Please note that this video has been removed by the user … at least this is the message you get when you click the play button – no idea why this has happened.  You might enjoy some of her commentary, interviews and videos here instead.  Thanks to @PrincessJuleski on Twitter for this pointer to the Academy of Achievement website.

I have to thank Merlin Mann for this. If you don’t know his blog 43 Folders, check it out. I stumbled on this little 3 minute treasure quite by accident, thanks to being a Merlin devotee.

Over the past few years, he has sent me off on small quests that have enriched my thinking on creativity. I learned of Steven Pressfield The War of Art from Merlin. Here is a video from the estimable American dancer Twyla Tharp. She knows what she’s talking about, and she says it well.

I am reminded also of Dan Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: the last career guide you’ll ever need.  One of the rules Johnny has to learn is to ‘make excellent mistakes.’ Tharp understands this; it’s often the way of the creative.


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I love a sunburnt country …

Image by Gandalf. via Flickr

And so off I went today to see Australia Baz Luhrmann’s epic, epic movie about … OK, no spoilers here, but can I just say spearing, crocodiles, the bombing of Darwin, cattle stampedes, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, romance … the attraction of opposites, dyed-in-the-wool villains, redemption, the stolen generations, a wonderful young actor Brandon Walters, all your old favourite Aussie actors, and a landscape to die for. Well a lot do in this movie. But it’s much, much, much more …

I knew some of what to expect from the video podcast series Set to Screen that’s been released gradually on the iTunes Store this year. The last episode on ‘Editing’ was released only last week. In these really excellent and free 10 minute or so videos, the business of making movies was introduced supposedly for Higher Ed students by Luhrmann himself. If you are at all interested in what goes on before, during, and after a shoot, download the series. Nice bit of product placement for Apple of course.

But back to the experience of the movie. It’s an old-fashioned, gutsy, romantic movie and it wears its big heart on its sleeve. It’s derivative and excessive in parts, but it is also sweetly comic, tender, and reveals a landscape that is astonishingly beautiful. The soundtrack and especially the music is as lush as is the production design, and that’s just fabulous … as you would expect from Catherine Martin. The integration of live-action on location, studio shots and CGI is well-nigh seamless, though a couple of the Darwin panoramic shots looked a bit artificial … I’m carping. The performances are all terrific, and the casting of Jackman and Kidman as a screen couple is quite simply, perfect. Nicole Kidman in a recent interview on how she found working so closely with Jackman said it was ‘nice’ to go to work each day … I bet.

The story is highly charged, energetic, and as packed as it can possibly be without exploding out of its tight riding britches … it runs already at a whopping 165 minutes. It’s a Baz Luhrmann movie that’s for sure, and his hand is very firmly on the tiller. He’s said he has deliberately made a movie for everyone, and that he will probably be ‘killed for it.’  I doubt it, but this ambitious aim also creates the movie’s most significant weak spot, in that it does try to be all things for all audiences.

The light-hearted and broadly comic opening sequences do jar a little, but maybe that was me. I was reminded here of Strictly Ballroom (1992) and some of the comic nonsense in Moulin Rouge (2001). Australia then steadily generates momentum and gear shifts into darker, more violent and guilt-laden territory. Some of the background on the stolen generation and indigenous Australia is of course necessary, but it’s perhaps a tad obviously expositional when it comes.

I loved the Darwin outdoor pictures sequence as the boy Nulla watches Judy Garland, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. His referencing of this classic 1939 movie throughout Australia shows Luhrmann the movie-maker at his most poignant, clever, and imaginative.

And I was moved deeply and unexpectedly by the slide at movie’s end which declared that in 2008 the Prime Minister of Australia apologised to indigenous Australians for the treatment of the stolen generation. That was a good thing I reckon … that I was so moved. I hope it has the same effect on others.

Stay for the credits by the way. You will get to hear Elton John and Rolf Harris and a whole lot more.

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Time and practice … the right stuff

Right now I’m enjoying Malcolm Gladwell‘s new book Outliers: the story of success.  Gladwell of Tipping Point and Blink fame is a writer whose theories always excite me. The conclusions he comes to are  compelling, not only because his research is meticulous, but also because of the way he crafts the outcomes of his work. He uses story-telling or narrative construction to publish his research. I am in fact listening to Gladwell read his book, rather than reading it. Gladwell has a relaxed, warm tone and his inflexions and reading skills infuse the read text with what are the author’s own, immediate emphases. I’m half way through the book as I write this.

Success is the topic of Outliers … . What I am enjoying so far are the conclusions Gladwell reaches in asking what ingredients define the rise to major success by an individual. Experience plays a huge part. The author claims that at least 10,000 hours of work or about 10 years of preparation in the chosen field is the norm for those who achieve success. Whether it’s the Beatles, lawers, software creators or classical musicians, experience in and working at the skills of the field is perhaps the key ingredient.

It’s not simply latent talent and the right background that will get you to the pinnacle, but work and a lot of it.

Food for thought when dealing with the formal education of artists and creatives.

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Audition time … a few truths

The jacaranda trees are starting to go off after a month or more of blooming their lovely hearts out. That means end of year uni exams are over, but it also signals the start of audition season here in Queensland, and indeed, all over the country.

As I write, hopefuls are being coached and lining up to compete for a place at an Australian theatre-training institute. NIDA, WAAPA, VCA, QUT, USQ … the acronyms of the institutions are well-known by the hopeful auditionees, many of whom are trying out for them all. Only a handful will make it as professionals, and that’s probably a good thing. The truth is that a self-sifting process begins at the starting gate for those who aspire to a career as a performer. It’s heartbreaking, but also true.

I also know it’s audition season because I used to be part of a team at USQ that took applicants through their paces every November with call backs in early December. Although auditions are, according to US actor-trainer and author Robert Barton, the ‘least fair thing about the theatre,’ I recall these day-long workshops being most enjoyable for the participants … at least that’s what we’d hear in feedback. And they did relish the opportunity to loosen up, to let go of the nerves. We would lead them through activities and games for a couple of hours in the morning before the individual presentations to the audition panel in the afternoon. The panel knew that playfulness and trust are requisites for creativity, and it was always part of the approach taken by USQ’s panel. Give an actor the best chance to perform, and s/he’ll usually deliver. However, it’s  also true what they say about the first minute of an audition … we could almost always tell in that time whether or not the applicant had that indefinable aptitude and imagination that we were looking for. I won’t use the word ‘talent’ although that’s part of the package, but it can be something as vague to explain but as potent to experience as a particular energy and connection with others in the space. And so someone who had never (sadly) experienced theatre outside of school could give a blinder of an audition. Another person with years of speech and drama behind them as well as performance experience would fade away. True.

I also coach people for auditions. My approach is to encourage them to be as flexible and open as possible to the ideas in the script and to their own energies. I often find myself having to ‘break the mould’ that the candidate has poured for himself. The first run through of a piece is a warm-up; the second time you start to get a sense of where the actor is coming from, how she’s thinking about the character and situation … most don’t know how to read a dramatic text for clues by the way.

At this point I like to redirect to see whether or not s/he can start cracking open the constraints of the inevitable repetition of lines learning, rather than ideas learning. What Stanislavski called ‘rubber-stamping’ of a performance is of course death to freshness and vitality, but most just repeat what they have learned, trying to make it the same as last time, to get the words and moves right. This focus of energy on ‘getting it right’ chokes the imagination and stifles the content of the material.  If an auditionee cannot take direction and replay a moment or a scene from a different angle … in other words to apply her imagination and energy to the situation right then and there, then it’s all over. True.

I’m sending good vibes out there to all auditionees; god knows it’s a tough business, but perhaps it’s also a good thing to start getting used to this least fair part of being an actor. Auditions are a fact of life for working artists, and in the real world of professional acting not all audition experiences are good ones … nor is much playtime spent on them. One ex-student of mine, a very fine actor, calls himself ‘a professional auditionee.’ There’s no small amount of angst involved in the whole audition process, so it’s probably a good idea and helpful to one’s mental health to get used to seeing auditions not as a test of your worth, but as a chance to perform.

Break a leg!

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Give it to me live please!

Dumb Waiters album cover
Image via Wikipedia

I couldn’t resist posting this, if only to prove how a great play can get sandbagged by good intentions. Here’s Harold Pinter‘s The Dumb Waiter, a brilliant, dark little piece for two actors. It’s been animated and condensed and posted up to YouTube.

The point, I hear you ask? Well maybe it will hook someone to read/see live the whole play, perhaps it’s enhancing the Pinter profile … mmm, maybe not.

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