In the past, I have been at war with my own creative work. I too have fallen victim to the romanticised notion of the struggling artist alone in the world, charged with the crucially important task of going through the pains of bringing a creative vision to life.
This time, I called bullshit on that.
…to create a beautiful dream on stage through tap dance (well, an original story and formatted first draft at least).
The Unwilling Elephant
For some time now, I’ve been looking for the next long-term creative project to sink my teeth into.
Whatever the idea was, I knew it had to be tap dance based. I’m 31 now, and even though there are plenty of other non-dance projects I’m looking forward to (and working toward) for the future, I know that my future self will be somewhat cranky at me if I don’t prioritise dance while I can.
8 months ago, I thought I’d found the idea; a new tap dance production that would push the boundaries of what is physically and artistically possible within the art-form. Without going into detail, I can say that the idea was good, and it had potential.
But there was one problem…
It didn’t want to happen.
I’d worked with the idea for several months. I’d spoken with the cast and creative team that I had in mind, and they were on board and awaiting my go-ahead. The structure of the show was strong, and I had everything mapped out; Lighting, Sound Design, Set Design and Costuming. I had a marketing plan moving forward and a realistic timeline to make it all happen. It was all set and ready to roll. I just had to take the next step to make it happen.
But it didn’t want to happen.
Which is, of course, another way of saying: My heart wasn’t in it.
I’ve pushed enough unwilling elephants up hills to know that I have no interest in doing so again. I don’t mind showing the elephant the way, helping and enticing the elephant with the promise of tasty rewards and a downhill slope on the other side, but from the get-go, the elephant has to be at least a little interested. Trying to motivate something that lacks the motivation to be motivated is a sure-fire path to burnout, as many of us have learned.
So, with much thought and consideration, I decided to shelve this particular idea, for now.
I’m glad I did. If there’s one saying that we’ve likely all been told in our lives, it’s ‘when one door closes, another door opens’. It doesn’t always work like that of course, but fortunately, this time it did.
The Willing Elephant
In April, Tiarna and I guest-performed a classic Fred Astaire/Eleanor Powell duo at the Sydney Tap Dance Festival. It’s a magic, super-charming routine that went down extremely well with the audience. After the show, we learned that Dein Perry (the creator of ‘Tap Dogs’) had been in the audience, which was confirmed when he approached us backstage.
I’ve known Dein for some years now. It was a brief but happy opportunity for us to catch-up, and for Tiarna to meet him in person. He had enjoyed our duo, particularly the style in which Tiarna and I danced.
In the days following the performance, Dein and I continued to speak online, talking much about tap dance, the state of the industry, and the styles that have become prominent in the world. As generally happens in conversations about tap, Fred Astaire came up; specifically, the style he embodied so well.
Then, Dein said something that lit the match on the idea that I would spend the next 3 months developing…
‘This could be where your niche is’.
That was it. I instantly knew Dein was right. I love this style, and I always have. I love the charm, the elegance and sophistication of it all. I love dancing it, choreographing it and watching it (and I’m certainly not the only one).
From almost the very first moment, I knew what I wanted this concept to be, and what I didn’t want it to be.
I wanted to create beauty on stage through tap dance. I wanted to tell a new story and I wanted it to truly resonate with audiences of all ages. I wanted it to have an unapologetic excess of heart. I want audiences to both laugh and cry.
I wanted to push the boundaries of what is physically and artistically possible within the art-form of tap dance.
With these crucial parameters in place, the idea quickly evolved.
Ego is the Enemy**
From the start, I felt that I had something here. I wanted to do this one right.
One of the most important steps in the process was to separate myself from the idea. I had to acknowledge that it was not just me creating this concept; the idea and I had entered into an agreement to work together.
It might sound a tad strange. But looking back, I cannot tell you how crucial this part of the process was. When you are separate from your work in this way, you are minimising the chance of your own ego sneaking its way behind the wheel and fucking everything up*. Yes, in a way this stops you from taking full credibility for the idea, but you also can’t be fully to blame if it doesn’t work out.
For me, feelings of either superiority or inferiority stifle creativity. Learning to recognise and manage both ego and fear was of paramount importance during the creative process.
Discipline, and run-of-the-mill hard work.
The idea was strong. But there’s really nothing terribly special about a good idea any more. We’ve probably all had at least a few (whether we brought them to fruition or not). Many ideas hold the potential of treasure within. When it came down to it, what truly made the first draft happen was action and simple, run-of-the-mill hard work.
For this particular idea, I worked solidly for 3 months, chipping away at the script development for a few hours each afternoon, after having gotten the un-fun administration tasks (which I call ‘the necessary borings’) out of the way during the morning.
The idea began as a vague concept, which gradually formed, one baby step at a time. The process of writing wasn’t a matter of sitting down and smashing out a script, it was a matter of slowly but surely filling in the detail and the gaps of the idea.
Sure, in the beginning phases, the idea and I were both excited and ready to work. Inspiration flowed freely. But even with an idea that wanted to work, there were plenty of brick walls that we ran into; the ‘instant gratification monkey’ (the part of the brain that makes you procrastinate) was pulling me hard.
However, whenever the instant gratification monkey would try to lure me into procrastination mode, or ‘the dark playground’ (I highly recommend checking out these life-changing articles on procrastination), a quote came to mind:
‘You will know the pain of discipline or the pain of regret’.
A few lessons learned:
I’ve learned much over the last 3 months, but the most important taking has been a greater understanding of how I work. I learned that in order to optimise and maximise my creative time, I need the following:
I have no doubt that the success of the project so far – that is, to create a story that I actually quite like – has been largely due to the feeling of freedom I feel knowing that I am secure, I have safety nets in place (in my case, multiple sources of income). It has not been pressured. No-one has been looking over my shoulder, and this has been of crucial importance.
Space (Wall Mapping/Storyboarding)
Also of crucial importance was the process of visually mapping out the story on my hallway wall. I don’t function terribly well hunched over a laptop, especially during the brainstorming phase. I need to stand up and move. When I decided to take this idea seriously and allowed it the breathing space it needed, things started to move much faster.
While I missed Tiarna for the 10 days she was in Sydney visiting her family, this solitary time allowed me to dive deep into creative mode. I seized this time as best I could. I basically became a hermit for 10 days straight, but it paid off; the entire 2nd act of the show was mapped out and written in this time.
I recently made the decision to purchase a digital piano to rekindle the skill I spent years developing throughout my childhood and teenage years. After much research, I chose the Kawai ES-110***. I purchased it months ago, and despite being extremely tempted to get started straight away, I left it boxed and unopened. I made the promise to myself that I would open the box on the day I completed the formatted first draft.
That boxed piano kept the end firmly in sight – it kept me on task much more than I initially thought it would. The first time sitting down at the new piano (the instant gratification monkey at my side) felt earned, and damn incredible.
While this big reward was a driving force for the project as a whole, smaller rewards kept me going throughout the day. If one is clever about it, the instant gratification monkey can actually help with this. For instance, he loves coffee, and often succeeds in convincing me that I’ll be more creative if I stop what I’m doing and make one. When this happened during a creative block, I’d take note, and then set the timer for another 30 minutes. I would work harder for those 30 minutes, knowing that delicious coffee was waiting for me at the end.
While these may not work for everyone, they worked a treat for me. They will undoubtedly follow me through future creative adventures I embark upon.
There’s much more to share, but I don’t want to give too much away too soon. And besides, I’ve probably shared enough with this one.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this process, and am sad to see the main creative phase come to an end. There is much work still to do of course, but the process of exploring, fleshing out, and dancing with an idea is my favourite part of creating. I’ll miss it (until next time, of course).
I don’t yet know where this show wants to go. It’s hinting at tremendous potential; that it has legs and it wants to get out and explore the world. While it continues to tell me that, I intend to give it everything I’ve got. However, if at any point it ultimately decides that it doesn’t want to go further, I’ll respect that, and will leave it behind.
I don’t think that will happen, but time will tell (as it always does).
Thank you for reading. And thank you to the small group of people who’ve been following along and keeping me accountable as I embark on this new creative adventure. You help more than you know, and I’m endlessly grateful. I hope you are able to enjoy your own creative adventures, whatever they look like for you.
* I hope swearing doesn’t bother anyone, but I find it rather fun from time to time. If you’re not a fan, I completely understand and don’t worry, I won’t over-do it.
…but next time you’re alone in a room with no-one listening, have a go at dropping an F-bomb, just for fun.
** I highly recommend Ryan Holiday’s book, ‘Ego is the Enemy’. It’s a lifechanger.
*** I didn’t need or want a digital piano overloaded with features and fancy sounds. I simply wanted portability, and the closest possible feel and sound to a grand piano at an affordable price. The Kawai ES-110 has a top quality hammer key action (which takes care of the feel) and 88-note sampling (which takes care of the sound). It is sensational. I love it.
‘Swingtime in the Rockies’ by Benny Goodman. Hopefully, this sets the mood: