Creative Strength and Conditioning
Continuing on from my last post, which explored the mantra ‘Better Than Before’, I want to explore here more ways in which creatives can embrace the idea of ‘training’. Once again, I’m taking my inspiration from sport and approaches to sports coaching, and asking: Can we, as creatives, adopt a similar approach to sportspeople when it comes to developing and challenging our creative practice?
Imagine for a moment that you are an elite athlete – a stretch for many of us but I trust your powers of imagination! What might your day look like? Well, you’ll probably be up fairly early. You’ll eat a nutritious breakfast – probably based on nutritional advice from a coach or dietitian. You’ll get yourself ready and you’ll head out for some sort of training. Depending on where this day sits within your competition schedule the balance of activities will vary. But fundamentally, you’ll probably be looking at training in these key areas: strength and conditioning, skills training, and scenario practice. (Bear with me – this will become about creativity very soon!)
In this blog, I’m going to focus on the first of these areas – I’ll come onto the second two in a later blog where I look at approaches to rehearsals.
Strength and Conditioning (Or, in layman’s terms, the gym.)
This work is all about developing the foundations, building muscle strength, agility and stamina. No athlete would be expected to go out and perform on the field or track, without spending time working on these core foundations. So why do so many creatives, expect to be able to create art without working on their respective foundations?
I mentioned Dave Alred’s book ‘The Pressure Principle’ in my past blog – ‘Better Than Before’. Another phrase of his is ‘the ugly zone’ – this is the place where athletes are pushing at the very edge of their ability. This is where they are fuelled by a continuous desire to improve. Driven by both a personal motivation to be in the best possible condition to perform but also an awareness that standing still is the same as going backwards, as all your competitors overtake you.
As creatives, we rarely take ourselves into this ‘ugly zone’. There is a worrying tendency to find a method or practice that works, and we stick to it. Often, our fear of failing gets in the way of our desire to improve. Perhaps we need to reframe this – if we don’t improve, we are failing! Someone else will be creating something newer and more interesting. So, we need to keep pushing ourselves and challenging our practice.
In many ways I’m sure this is fuelled by a lack of value placed on and investment into the arts. We are incredibly fortunate if we get given an opportunity to make any work at all and get paid any kind of reasonable wage for it. This means that we cling on to these opportunities desperately and are driven more by a desire not to mess up this chance, than to make the most of the opportunity. Even established directors seem to be plagued by imposter syndrome and terrified that this is the production where everyone will finally discover that you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing.
Similarly, Artistic Directors and Programmers have become incredibly conservative with who they give directing opportunities to. With finances on the line it’s much easier to go with a known, safe quantity, than an exciting but potentially volatile young talent.
This has all led to a theatre industry that is largely in stasis. Paralysed through fear and unable to move forward. And, like the athlete that doesn’t go to the gym or continue to improve, other theatre industries are catching up and overtaking. Europe and Scandinavia are at the heart of innovative theatre practice at the moment. Even 50 years ago one of our greatest directors, Peter Brook, was driven to Europe in order to make his boundary pushing work. In the present, Cheek By Jowl can only work in their optimal fashion when they work with European ensembles in Russia and France, and Katie Mitchell has been driven overseas. And increasingly the work we’re seeing in the UK is dominated by European influence: Maria Aberg (Sweden) is now regularly directing at the RSC, Ivo van Howe (Netherlands) lit a fire in the UK theatre scene with his View From The Bridge for the Young Vic.
But these are all external challenges. Yes, we can and should work to get more funding into the arts to allow more risks to be made. But how can we, ourselves, take responsibility for our own creative development? How can we make sure we’re still going to the gym?
Now as artists and creatives, our muscle strength isn’t so important – though if you’re a dancer it most definitely is! But we all have core foundations that we need in order to do our creative work. As an actor, all those hours working on your voice at drama school were for a reason, and the work wasn’t finished when you graduated. That’s like an athlete saying: “Oh no I don’t need to go to the gym anymore. I had a really got personal trainer for 3 years so I’m all good now.” Work on your voice, work on your body!
As writers, designers or directors, it might be harder to define our foundations. But essentially, we’re looking at words, images and ideas. So, developing exercises that get you to stimulate those muscles is really important. That might mean reading books and writing a response to it. It might mean going to an art exhibition or flicking through a magazine and creating some sketches or collages as a response. Or it might be taking stories or plays and creating a mood-board, a Spotify playlist, a storyboard as a response.
My point is, we do ourselves a massive disservice if we don’t continue to stretch, exercise and strengthen our creative muscles. I think we often make the assumption that we’re naturally creative – and we quite possibly are – and therefore we can just feed off the brilliance of our natural gift. But equally, most athletes are born with a natural gift and yet those that succeed continually work to improve on that natural foundation.
If we are to continue to make theatre that excites, moves and innovates, we have to keep working on our own creative skills. The more we include periods of personal development into our routines – even 20 mins with a sketchbook a couple of times a week – the more confidence we’ll have to take risks in the rehearsal room and on stage. The more comfortable we’ll become in questioning the way we do things – “why do I do this? Is it just out of habit?” And the more creative, enjoyable and fulfilling our work will become.