Overcoming artistic ‘burnout’ by Russ Hope

Russ HopeForging a career in theatre directing is no mean feat, and for every director who reaches the peaks of success, there are many burnt-out casualties littered along the roadside. In an aim to avoid his own creative burnout, Russ Hope shadowed eight of the UK’s most exciting young theatre directors, with unprecedented access to that most mysterious and alchemical of places: the rehearsal room. His new book, Getting Directions, records the processes, practices and personalities he encountered, and suggests how other emerging theatremakers can avoid their own artistic exhaustion.

I am writing this the day after the start of the London 2012 Olympics and I am still in thrall to Danny Boyle’s spectacular Opening Ceremony. In interview, Boyle explained that the performance, which involved 10,000 volunteer performers, would celebrate ‘the best of us’: the formation of the NHS, the importance of ordinary people – factory workers, enlisted soldiers – in shifting the gears of British history, and the power of popular music to unite communities, from rock ’n’ roll to grime. That Boyle’s definition of ‘the best of us’ annoyed a few commentators on the political right may only have made him smile.

But to present an ‘impartial’ view of British history would not only be boring; it would be impossible. Stories are about choices, and staging any event means making a thousand editorial choices, big and small, from what to include and what to remove, to whom to cast and where to place the cameras. Whatever your politics, there is no denying that Danny Boyle is a director who is confident in his aesthetic taste and moral judgment. He wants to affect the audience and holds opinions about his subject matter. These qualities are, I would argue, prerequisites to any claim to being an artist, particularly the latter, without which, one is merely an imitator.

In constructing the ceremony, Boyle embraced in spectacular style the challenges of a particular brief, venue and set of circumstances, forging Olympics rings in the air and depicting the Queen skydiving into the stadium alongside Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Even if the stories are eternal, the toolbox is always specific.

Let us look back a few years. It is the mid-nineties, and Danny Boyle, then a successful theatre director, is preparing his first feature film, Shallow Grave. On the other side of London, I am eight years old and writing my first song, my dad’s acoustic guitar laid flat across my lap. Its opening lines were:

‘Cruisin’ with my baby
Café beside me, maybe
We might stop
For a hamburger today.’

My dad came into the room and, as kindly as he could, suggested that I consider writing about some experience closer to home: I was too young to drive, too young for a romantic relationship, and had never yet called a woman ‘baby’. Aside from its decent effort at scansion, there is little in the song worth saving.

I recall this because, despite the temptation to do so, it would be a mistake to ridicule my past self. At the time I had been listening to The Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, and their style and form had rubbed off on me.When, years later, I shifted my focus away from music and towards the theatre, I began in much the same way, with imitation: watching actors, and dissecting plays and stories with a keen eye.

Great Expectations - Great Expectations

Rehearsing Great Expectations, directed by Nikolai Foster (Chapter 4)

It is by using theory and practice that we learn how to design any kind of entertainment to fit the unit of time with which we have been entrusted by an audience. With repetition, we gain clarity over the type of work we wish to create, and we develop and enhance the dexterity and lightness of touch it demands of us. With each production, we pre-empt problems that little bit quicker, and solve them with less friction. With some luck, the hit-rate settles into a consistent level.

A career in the theatre, however, holds many dangers. It is a difficult industry in which to make a living: notoriously bleak employment statistics paired with low wages can be offputting at best and crippling at worst. While the internet has arguably democratised music and film, theatre remains a gloriously (and infuriatingly) people- and resource-intensive process. Only a few years out of university, an emerging theatre director might see his or her friends settling into graduate schemes and degree-conversion courses, and wonder whether the obstacles are worth their reward. For these reasons, my passion appeared to burnout some years ago. Occasionally, news of hard-won successes would reach me through texts or chats or Facebook, but each week I would hear too that some friend or acquaintance was moving on.

Getting Directions - rehearsal shots

The rehearsal room for Dick Whittington and his Cat directed by Steve Marmion (Chapter 2)

We burnout because we have lost sight of what we want for ourselves, or because the reasons that brought us to this career no longer reflect who we have become. There are a few options in such a scenario. In my case, I decided to take a sabbatical. I swore off theatre for six months, refocusing the use of my time to books, friends and cooking. When I was ready to re-enter the world, I emailed Matthew Dunster, a director I admired, to ask if it might be possible to shadow him for the duration of a production upon which he was about to embark. Matthew was gracious with his time, granting me full access to the production, all the way from its inception through production meetings and rehearsals and performance through observation and hours of one-on-one interviews.

Following this, I posed the same question to other directors, and soon I had gathered enough material and experience to formulate an idea using my observations of directors at work.

Getting Directions, the resulting book, grants unprecedented access to the rehearsal rooms and thinking styles of some of our most brilliant young directors, revealing some of the most diverse approaches to directing being used today. The directors involved are very different people, but I believe there are strong similarities in how they conceptualise their work and communicate with their teams, and in how seriously they take their responsibilities as both managers and as artists, making sense of their place within an industry and having something unique to say about the world.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Natalie Abrahami for Headlong (Chapter 3)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Natalie Abrahami for Headlong (Chapter 3)

The productions featured are nothing so grand as an Olympic Opening Ceremony, but they display similar levels of drama and diversity: Greek tragedy at the Gate; Tennessee Williams at the Young Vic; panto at the Lyric Hammersmith and a touring Dickens dramatisation to pick out a few. One of the book’s aims is to prevent creative burn-out by encouraging readers to consider adjusting their focus and ask new questions of texts, of companies and of people, most importantly themselves. It is a book about creative relationships, principles with which to approach problems, and good judgment.

Getting Directions by Russ Hope (£12.99)

Getting Directions by Russ Hope (£12.99)

Getting Directions does not promise quick fixes, but if you’re new to theatre, it could help you get your head straight in a challenging arena. If you have been around for a while, it may help you adjust your posture, reassess your motives, and teach you some new tricks along the way.

NHB are thrilled to have just published Russ Hope’s Getting Directions. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

Advertisements

Birth of the ‘Rules’ by Andy Nyman

Andy Nyman

illustration © Jemima Williams

Andy Nyman’s The Golden Rules of Acting offers real-world advice on how to be an actor – written by a working actor with over 25 years’ experience. In irresistible pocket-sized paperback, packed with short, punchy bulletpoints and illustrated in colour throughout – it certainly gets the message across in a totally memorable way. In the words of actor and comedian Simon Pegg: ‘Christians have the bible, now actors have this book. At last, everyone is happy.’ Here, Andy – currently starring in Abigail’s Party in the West End – explains why he had to write the book.

I’ve wanted to be an actor ever since I was a boy.

That feeling was confirmed for me when my Dad took me to see Jaws at the cinema. I was 13 and the experience of that film shook me and awakened me to a couple of key facts:

  • Films aren’t just for watching; when they are great they can be a visceral experience. The jolts I suffered that day shaped a taste for dark material that has stayed with me throughout my career.
  • Seeing Richard Dreyfuss up there on the big screen allowed me to dream in a whole new way. As a stocky, glasses wearing, curly haired Jewish teenager, I was looking up at a stocky, glasses wearing, curly haired Jewish actor playing one of the leads in the most exciting movie experience I had ever had. Could this be true? Did this mean that if you weren’t a tall, thin, impossibly beautiful man you could still play leads in films? My world changed.

I pursued every acting opportunity I could. Amateur dramatics at Leicester’s excellent Little Theatre, drama classes with the teacher my brilliant Mum found, then off to do Drama A-level at Melton Mowbray college before getting into the Guildhall School of Music & Drama to do the 3-year acting course.

In the 30 years since doing those amateur shows my enthusiasm for acting has never waned, not once. I think I am blessed with a genetic make-up that means my default outlook is positive; I love what I do so much that the very pursuit of it keeps me excited.

My passion for acting borders on obsession. From the very earliest days I wanted to know what an actor’s life was like. I bought every book on acting I could lay my hands on. But something struck me as I read them. Whilst there was an abundance of material on how to act, how to create a character, the different schools of thought on methodology, styles of performance etc etc etc, I couldn’t find anything on what I really wanted to know: what was it like to actually be an actor? How did one survive in the business? How did one sustain a career?

When I finished drama school and entered the business there was still nothing that represented a real handbook of advice on actually existing as an actor – and I craved one. It suddenly felt more important than ever. I was now in the business and I wanted something that would hold my hand, guide me and tell me some of the potential traps that lay ahead and how to avoid them.The Golden Rules of Acting

The desire for that book never subsided, and over the ensuing years it simmered away in the back of my mind. In 2006 I jotted down a few thoughts I had on acting. I have always been inspired by books of quotes and often carry a pocket-sized book of quotes with me. I scribbled some bullet points down on the inside front cover of the quote book I had with me – it felt like a sensible place for them as I looked at the book so frequently. After a few days a couple more thoughts occurred to me and I noted them down in the same place.

I soon found that the act of noting these thoughts down had become habitual. Within a week I had started jotting down thoughts on a regular basis. Instead of using the inside cover of the pocket book, I now carried a pad and added new ones as they popped into my head. As I noted them down I began to recognise in them some of the important lessons I had learned about surviving as an actor.

Over the next 5 years I jotted, scribbled and noted thoughts as they came to me. I tried to write in the shortest, most pragmatic way I could. I didn’t want to be flowery, I wanted to cut to the heart of what I wanted to say. I kept being as honest as I could with myself – after all, why lie? It’s better to be aware of the truth and find inspiration in that than limit yourself with half-truths. This was always a personal project for me, a way of reminding myself of what mattered to me about the acting business.

I have a love of quirky design and images and realised that it would help if I could find images to accompany my ideas. I knew that the right image or design could really help me remember the point I was making; it somehow ‘anchored’ it in my mind. I also added into the mix many of the quotes that inspire me. The feeling that someone else had been there before me and done it – or even been there and failed – was a real comfort. I began to think of each point as a Golden Rule for me – something to abide by, something that I needed to remember and consider.

Once I had assembled my Golden Rules I carried them around with me, in the way I had my books of quotes. This served several purposes: not only did I enjoy reading them as entertainment, I found them useful in different situations – be that an audition or a rehearsal. Most importantly they reminded me that I was an actor, I was living the life that I had always dreamt of. This was something special, something to always protect and cherish.

When I started talking to Nick Hern about publishing the book I knew that I wanted to do something different with it. I wanted it to feel like the pieces of paper I carried around with me, full of odd images, scribbles and, hopefully, inspiring thoughts. I wanted it to be affordable and real-world, something that could act as an honest friend who has been through it, who understands and always tells it like it is.

I’m so excited that The Golden Rules of Acting is being published. To think that this could help and inspire working actors, drama students or simply those who want an insight into the challenges of an actor’s life is tremendously exciting.

I hope that the book will be something that can live in your bag or pocket, go with you to auditions, rehearsal rooms, sets and locations, or simply be there for you whenever you need it, like the best kind of friend, sharing your fears and your dreams. It’s the book I always wanted and could never get. Enjoy.

Golden Rules of Acting - magnets

A ‘Golden Rules’ magnet anyone?

NHB are thrilled to publish Andy Nyman’s The Golden Rules of Acting. To order your copy with 20% off (a steal at £4.79) click here – no voucher code required.

We have a small stack of Golden Rules magnets up for grabs – in fact, only 13 exist in the world! To win one, just add your own ‘Golden Rule’ at the bottom of this blog post (as a ‘comment’). The first 13 rules added win a magnet, it’s as simple as that. But make sure to also email info@nickhernbooks.co.uk with your full address.

In need of inspiration? Check out the @GoldenRulesBook twitter feed to read some fantastic rules that have already been shared.