Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Creative Block

I’m not sure what happened. I used to be a little power house of creativity when it came to burlesque. I didn’t create the best, the most glamorous or the most innovative acts, and I didn’t make them as quickly as some of the other performers out there but I was always bubbling away with useable ideas and ways to execute them.

Then everything changed. Almost a year ago, my life changed drastically. I had been working a job that had turned into a dead-end drudge, and so I left to embark on a new adventure – training to teach drama for Further Education (that’s teens 16+ and adult education). So, I decided that for a year, while I went back into full time education, I would put performing firmly on the back burner and not work on act creation either. This turned out to be a sensible decision. My teacher training year was exhausting, with a heavy workload and I don’t know where I’d have found the time to squeeze in any performance commitments. As for creating acts, my mind was on essays, research projects and lesson planning. Very occasionally I’d have a tiny proto-idea which I’d jot down in a note book or my diary, but there it would stay. They never got much further than that; my mind just wasn’t in that place.

My teaching style (please note any potential employers who may be reading this: not my teaching style.)

So a year passed and I was only peripherally involved in the world of burlesque. But I was still there in the background. On the internet. Facebook, to be more specific. I went on Facebook every single day. Twice a day absolute minimum. Usually more like ten times a day. On days when I was lesson planning or working on assignments at home I kept it open in the background the whole time, checking it between bursts of work. Hell, it’s open in the background right now as I write this. I told myself I kept online in case I got booking enquiries; it would be rude to keep people dangling. I told myself it was to keep up with the friends I had made via performing. I told myself that having some sort of an internet presence was necessary for when I returned to performing properly, otherwise people would forget that I had ever existed. What I actually did on Facebook was saw status after status about my fellow performers’ creative endeavours. This person’s new costume piece, this person talking about a creative breakthrough with an act idea, this one had just had a great time at this show, that one can’t wait for that show. What I actually ended up doing on Facebook was just seeing everyone else getting on with it. Getting on with the business of creating and performing. And even though I was getting on with something myself, my teacher training, I still felt a little sad and left out that I wasn’t getting on with it (in terms of burlesque) too.

So everyone else was getting on with it. But by this point, I was getting on with my teaching practice. Teaching drama to 16 to 24 year olds was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on; I really felt like I’d found my spiritual home. I had awesome, inspiring colleagues and the students were by turns, hilarious, clever, strange, wonderfully talented and completely welcoming. At first, I didn’t even miss not creating myself. It was so enjoyable facilitating creativity in others, being the person to give suggestions and critique and seeing the beautiful, strange flowers these new vines produced. On more than one occasion I had seen something they had produced and said to my friends at work, ‘I wish I’d thought of that’. And it was a good feeling, these kids had the talent, they just needed showing how to unlock it. It was a joy. And I was learning new things too. I was unsure of myself at the start, but I think I left my teaching placement confident that I could be a Good Teacher.

But at some point, teaching stopped being so hard. It was still a pleasure and a joy, but I had learned some of the basic skills and I was finding there was a little of myself left over at the end of the week, in a way there hadn’t been at first. And that little bit of myself started wanting to create again, but it didn’t really know where to begin. Before I had gone into teacher training I had sort of lost my way with performance. For the longest time as a performer, my strong suit had always been silly, manic, comedic burlesque with a minimum of sex appeal and glamour. Then, I had a big idea. I decided to produce a serious, theatrical, highly costumed act around a strange creature that had fascinated me for a long time. My act ‘The Last Jackalope’ was born. I had been so nervous about this act, it was very personal and revealed my vulnerable side in a way that felt a bit risky, but in general, it seemed to be fairly well received. After working on another comedic act (a quick project that ended up working quite well) I decided to revisit my idea of strange, quirky but decidedly non-comedic characters. This is where things started to go wrong. I planned to create two more acts which could be viewed as companion pieces for the Jackalope. One was based on the legend of Baba Yaga, and the other on the idea of sea sirens. I finished the Baba Yaga act but although I was quite pleased with the costume, the actual body of the act never quite worked. It involved a huge amount of loose feathers and it was messy, inconvenient to perform and never had the striking visual effect I had hoped it would. Not to mention, the dark, bewitching, strong willed character was something I didn’t feel I could portray convincingly enough. I shelved the act, with the hope of coming back to it to rework but I never really found a way to make it come to life in the way the Jackalope had. As for the other act, I made a costume for it. You can even see an image of it from an amazing shoot I did with Candee Photography, but the creation of the meat of the act stalled. It began to feel like it should be a dancerly act, full of flowing waves of sensuous movement. And a sensuous dancer I ain’t. Again, I shelved it. I hoped I would come back to it again with fresh eyes and ideas, but I never have.

'Foam' my sea siren character, by Candee Photography.

Both of those acts felt as though they were made for somebody else, somebody not very much like me at all. The Jackalope was serious and sad, but it really felt as though it belonged to me. Dumpy, lonely, awkward me. Looking back, the other two acts feel like they might have been made for someone I thought I wanted to be. I feel like the ideas were fairly good, they might have worked, I would have enjoyed them with the right performer at the helm. But they weren’t for me. Not really.

In this year, I have come to realise what I really want to be doing, in terms of performance. I want to make people laugh. I don’t want to try to be something I’m not. I’m not sensual, seductive, alluring, vampish or exotic. If I could find a way to get back to making people laugh, that would be amazing. If I could find some of the tenderness I used as part of the Jackalope to counterpoint that humour, that would be good too. But mainly, I should be making people laugh. Leave the glamour to those who do it well. Being funny is more rewarding for me.

So, with a better idea of what I want to achieve, I started thinking about form. One of the things I had been finding harder and harder with comedic burlesque was how to fit the striptease element in, or, if I wasn’t going to include striptease, what should happen in the act in its place. Striptease was starting to feel a little arbitrary for me; I didn’t feel that a pastie reveal counted as a big finish. This isn’t a criticism of what other performers are doing. We all have our own obsessions, passions and things we get excited about and mine aren’t going to be the same as yours. But I had stopped feeling excited about striptease. I had been watching performance from various genres, burlesque included, both for my teaching practice and for pleasure and I think I identified a common factor for all the performance that really spoke to me. I think of it as ‘Surprise and Delight’. Something you weren’t expecting that makes you go ‘Oooh!’ That ‘Oooh!’ might be if someone does something really skilful, or sexy, or funny, or weird, or talented. But what really spoke to me was that feeling of something unexpected happening that makes you go ‘Oooh!’. For me, that explained the striptease problem. ….

In June, despite having a plan in place, I found myself unemployed. As boredom and desperation started to set in I hoped that I would now have the time and lack of distractions to get creative again. I started a log book for burlesque related musings, I went to a practical workshop to improve my skills and I started trying to actively mind map ideas, even using the techniques I use with my learners in the classroom to try and generate something workable. Perhaps I am putting too much pressure on myself, because so far I have come up with a big fat nothing! Oddly enough though, creativity seems to work in mysterious ways. Although I have made nothing on the performance front I have started drawing again, and learned a ton of new songs on the ukulele, and got about half way through writing a short story, and almost finished writing my first song on the organ. I don’t know what this means. I’m not sure why performance, the thing that consumed so much of me for so long will not come, when apparently everything else is willing to drop by. Perhaps I am putting too much pressure on myself. Perhaps it will never come back. I worry that that might be the case. I loved performing burlesque so much, but now I feel so ambivalent about it because I can’t make it happen. Perhaps I have to learn to let it just come naturally again.

- Edit – Since I wrote this back in early July, I am now working in a call centre with little hope of getting a teaching job any time soon. Due to some difficult stuff in my personal life performing and creativity have slipped even further onto the back burner. But I’m still hanging in there. I never posted this at the time because I felt afraid to, like people might judge me or think that I’m just useless, but the last few weeks have made me realise that if you don’t reach out to people you just end up isolated. So I’d love to open up a conversation about what people do when they lose their creative muse, or when they feel pulled in a different creative direction but they aren’t sure what that direction is, or when they block themselves from creating. If anyone would like to comment on their experiences about creative blocks I’d love to hear what you have to say, either here on my blog, or on Facebook or wherever.

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