Like many of us, at the beginning of this year I wrote out a list of goals and resolutions. This new year’s resolution list was full of hopes and ambitions which ranged from updating my actor’s showreel to training for and completing my first triathlon. Then 2020 turned out not to be the year I – or any of us – were expecting it to be! Thankfully, I’d managed to get through one or two things on my list before we had to trust and comply to the Stay Home rules. So many items on my 2020 goals lists were about Recapturing a sense of fun and freedom in my life, being more hospitable – like having people I’ve only recently met over dinner that sort of thing. And also work as an actor – doing an improv course, signing up for regular voice, breathing and singing classes, being more hospitable – having people I’ve only recently met over for dinner and that sort of thing. Exciting times! So after taking a few days in early March to begin to come to terms with the fact this was going to be a very different year, I began thinking about how I might be able to invest in myself as an artist and continue the work of digging deeper, refining my craft and encouraging others along the way too.
When I was at drama school (much longer ago than I care to admit), I was recommended a book called The Artist’s Way. Essentially a 12-week program written by scriptwriter and author Julia Cameron. The confidence (or maybe, just maybe, the arrogance) of youth meant I didn’t take it too seriously. I knew who I was, what my strengths were both in terms of my personality and as an artist; so why would I need a book which essentially helps blocked artists recover their artistic ‘mojo’?! I’m so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had – paid and unpaid – as an actor in London and here in Sydney specifically with the work we’ve created through Clock and Spiel Productions. But after the best part of two decades bad habits tend to creep into the mix too if you’re not careful. For me, I’d begun to see my work as only valuable if it was paid at a certain level or led me to a bigger and better project. While neither of those are bad things in themselves, it meant that I was putting a lot of limits on myself and the joy and creativity I brought to my life as an actor was in short supply.
I consider it a very great blessing to have one of my oldest and dearest friends living close-by in Sydney – especially as Australia is my adoptive home and my family are all back in the UK. Her name’s Imogen and she and I were at drama school together in West London. We’ve been each other’s solid supporters and encouragers for many years through all the ups and downs of life – professionally and personally. We’ve performed together in several shows across both the hemispheres including the very fun ‘Brad Checked In’ by Paula Noble at The Old Fitz. Imogen and I had talked several times before about doing The Artist’s Way – even each starting it individually only to abandon it after 2 weeks. But this year as we saw the storm clouds gathering around the year ahead, we made a commitment to follow the book week by week, holding each other accountable to reading the material, doing the tasks and then sharing the results.
Imogen French and Yannick Lawry in Brad Checked In, Old Fitz Theatre 2014
The thing I liked immediately as I started Week 1 of The Artist’s Way was the discipline and schedule it forces you to adopt. Writing ‘morning pages’ each morning (3 pages of train-of-thought writing) and committing to the page before your day starts all your thoughts and observations along with hopes for the day ahead gave us each a sense of grounding. In time for me this led to key realisations around unhelpful thinking that was leading me to see my work as an actor as always needing to be profit and praise driven. This was a discipline that began to lead to real insight. For Imogen, a big realisation through the morning pages was that as an actor, you’re often going to auditions and feeling a pressure to be ‘better’ than anyone else going for the role. “I realised that we’re as actors, we’re all completely unique. And that means the art we create is completely unique too,” she told me, “Once we accept that this is true the obvious realisation is that there is no competition between us!” This was such a profound insight for Imogen very close to the beginning of our Artist’s Way journey, and straight after this she had two major theatre auditions… and was offered a significant role in both of them. This sense of freedom was beginning to yield incredible and unexpected results for both of us!
Another weekly aspect of The Artist’s Way is The Artist’s Date. This is an activity designed to connect to the playful child aspect of our personality that we each have within us even though we tend to layer age, experience and preconceived notions of respectability over it in abundance! I had some sobering Artist Dates like a visit to Sydney’s Jewish Museum (just ahead of our lockdown) which I’d been keen to visit since Clock and Spiel’s production of Freud’s Last Session which is set on the eve of the Second World War. Imogen enjoyed a walk around her suburb taking some photos and being able to experience it in a different way – not just as a set of streets to navigate towards a destination, but a journey of value in itself. My next artist date – once safety can be assured – will be to ride the Big Wheel at Sydney’s Luna Park and enjoy a few laps of the North Sydney Olympic Pool. It’s surprising the self-censorship and self-denial that would creep in to try and prevent this Artist Date. And author Julia Cameron warns that people might try and avoid these ‘necessary frivolities’ by concentrating on things that we ‘should’ be doing instead. However, it was amazing both for Imogen and for me what great ideas or joyful gratitude which led to a greater sense of connection with the world around us would come when we embraced and allowed ourselves this time.
Like anything that requires commitment and leads to positive change, The Artist’s Way does force you to come face to face with things that aren’t easy too. Being honest about how you use or waste your time each week is one example. When I took stock honestly, my phone and household chores were great distractions which I could see were holding me back from not only productivity but real reflective joy. One week of the book saw us needing to admit to past hurts both professional and personal which have led to compromised work and had us dealing with them in a visual form so that they could begin to be assessed and processed. Even being clear about what we actually want and don’t want (which is surprisingly difficult to answer when many of us have been raised in a society where being direct, honest and graciously ambitious are subtly discouraged), when it comes to how we express our art and creativity.
Each week there’s been a boldness, a new insight and a new idea for Imogen and I to discover for ourselves and share with each other and sometimes, thanks to our long friendship, to be able to encourage, empower and explain. There have also been some tangible project ideas too from a monologue family-tree to an isolation-based comedy dating show parody. All this from having permission to play, take risks and allowing ourselves to ask the question “what if I choose not to worry about what anyone else thinks of what I’m creating”.
Imogen and I are now 8-weeks into the 12-week programme and excited about where it’s leading us. We thoroughly recommend the process – especially if you can share the experience with a trusted friend from week to week. It’s been a Godsend in terms of keeping a focus on the future, being able to create and experiment with work where having fun and being authentic are at the core of it – not just a cynical means of making money or gaining ‘respect’, and taking this time of social distance to go a little deeper inside with a view to sharing insights and serving the world once we emerge to collaborate, play and inspire. If you’ve done the Artist’s Way before or are thinking of giving it a go, we’d love to know about your experience too – drop us a message anytime via firstname.lastname@example.org.