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Top Tips for Tough Times

December 31, 2013

for blog 1 2013 has been an extraordinary year. I’ve taught, performed and directed from rural Tamil-Nadu in India to Berkeley, California; from a small valley in the foothills of the Himalayas to the beach in Lesbos, from rural Southern France to Route 66 in West Hollywood; from Balletakademien Stockholm to Mexico City. I’ve worked with improvisors, dancers, clowns, acrobats, musicians, actors, writers, thinkers, meditators….. The work is stimulating, sometimes gruelling, always challenging and usually joyous.

In mid-year the book I’ve spent the last few years writing/editing, ‘Encountering Ensemble’, was published by Bloomsbury. This opened the door to other opportunities – lectures, seminars, symposia.

At a symposium in Los Angeles – a three-day event looking at ensemble, collaboration and community – I spent some time discussing a very basic question with some other participants (artists, academics, old, young, mainstream, experimental). The question was this: ‘How are we to survive?’

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That may sound a little ‘apocalyptic’, but is not meant to. A section of the symposium wanted to explore and share strategies for survival – artistic, financial, emotional, spiritual. How can we keep our passion, our sense of purpose, our urgency vibrant, when so much of our culture seems hell-bent on pissing on our bonfire? I don’t suppose the experiences of artists are unique – I expect that all who are driven by passion, and who embed  passion in their daily lives, face similar problems. But we were people from the world of performance so we talked about being performers.

for blog 3One of the things that resonated immediately for me was how – in the very specific context of film/TV-dominated Los Angeles – the things being discussed were strikingly similar to those I talk with people about in equally specific contexts in India, Greece, Germany, Sweden……

Although our details are very different, our needs are similar.

So as the year turns, here’s some thoughts about surviving tough times. They are the sorts of things I find myself chatting about with people all over the world – whatever their context, experience, confidence or art form.

for blog 2 1. Be in Community: Find a community and be part of it. Perhaps your community is your street or town. Perhaps those who share politics or beliefs. Perhaps your family. Perhaps it is other artists. Perhaps it is all of these. Perhaps your community meets in the studio or at auditions. Perhaps it meets in the local bar or coffee shop. Perhaps it meets online. It doesn’t matter. Find a community where you feel comfortable and treat yourself as a valued member of it.

2. Be Generous: Practice radical generosity, not charity. Be someone who is happy to be asked for things – even if you sometimes have to say ‘no’. If you structure your generosity into ‘schemes’ (‘I am willing to give 20130818-113039.jpgthis much time in these exact ways’) you are just doling out what you can spare. Anyone can do that. Instead, be available for people to tell you what they want of you. Perhaps they see things in you you didn’t know you had. Perhaps they want your time. Or a conversation. Or access to your networks. Or maybe they just want to feel that you are there for them. Be generous to those who ware doing things differently to you. I used to get very annoyed – twenty years ago –  when those in ‘the arts’ used to sneer and patronise those who worked in ‘community arts’. Now, the tables turned, I am equally saddened that, with ‘art-as-social-work’ at the top of the agenda in many funding areas, those who are doing well in this climate, sneer at and condemn those who work in less obviously socially-engaged way. We inhabit an ecosystem. All aspects of the ecosystem need to be healthy if it is to thrive. So be generous to those parts of the ecosystem you neither understand nor necessarily like.

for blog 53. Ask for Help: (this is one I find REALLY hard!). If you only give to others, you are not in community with them – you are adopting the position of being a benefactor. Only ever giving, and never asking, is a form of power and control. I would love more help, more collaboration, more assistance, but I am terrible at asking for it and terrible at accepting it when it is offered! Acknowledge that, to survive, we all need others.

4. Practice humility: Be grateful for what you’ve got (and what you are given) and don’t assume that you’ve got it because you are better than those around you. One of the more depressing conversations I had this year was with a young(ish) artist, evidently from a privileged background, who received regular arts-council funding for her work. She adamantly insisted that ‘in the end arts funding goes to the best work’. Perhaps she needed to deny her evident privilege to feel better about herself. The lack of humility and recognition that her privileged background had given her the time and space (and financial security) to develop her skills, was a little depressing. Whatever support you receive comes partly in response to your skills and efforts, partly in response to things outside your control – were you born into a social class that made you comfortable talking to those with power? Does who you are/what you do, match the agenda of those with power/money? Were you in the right place at the right time?. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t celebrate and be proud of every success – a small triumph or a life-changing transformation – but leaven your celebration with humility (and let that humility fuel some radical generosity)

for blog 65. NEVER be ashamed: Sometimes I feel guilty because I have not paid enough attention to a job or a person. I try not to wallow in it, but recognise that sometimes it is appropriate to feel guilt for something I have (or have not) done. It reminds me to learn from an experience. But shame? Shame is never healthy. While guilt is about what you do, shame is about who you are. If you do not get through an audition even though you gave your best – there is no cause for shame. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you, you just didn’t get the job. A failed funding application is no cause for shame. An audience member not liking something you did your best with…… no shame. We live in a culture of shame and derision (people making themselves feel better by trying to shame others). Do not do it to others. Never, never do it to yourself.

6.Trust your vision: If it really feels right to you, if whatever drives you feels as necessary as breath and water, then do it. You MUST do it. Even if others advise you, cajole you, ignore you, patronise you, you must ‘pursue your bliss’ (as Joseph Campbell so beautifully wrote). Other people are not you, they cannot do what you can do. Whatever you feel your genius to be, you must pursue it. Not to do so is death of the soul. When you know what you need to do, find a community that understands and respects you.

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2014 looks like carrying on from where 2013 left off. I am directing a show that opens in Perth in January, then I’ll teach in Melbourne and Brisbane. Then India for six weeks, running residential and non-residential workshops and doing a little performing. Then some work in the UK, Greece, residencies in Lesbos, America, France. Later in the year there will be trips to Sweden, Germany, Austria maybe. Who knows?

My community is international, online, passionate, engaged. I am very grateful that I am part of it. Readers of this blog are also part of it. Feel free to comment – it’s always good to hear from you.

for blog 8I struggle. I laugh. I learn. I fail. I succeed. Along with those I work with, collaborate with, along with those who look at my photos, my blog, my research pages, those who come to workshops, those who write to me for information or advice. Part of my humility is this – though I have been around for a few decades now, I’m still just working it out as I go along. We’re all traveling. None of us have arrived.

Whatever you do in 2014, in these tough, beautiful and terrifying times, I hope you finish each day feeling that you survived. Perhaps even thrived. And that you did so loved and respected by all in your community. Especially that you did so loved and respected by yourself. Happy New Year.

Stay safe.

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