Life Lessons I’ve Learnt Through The Arts

By Emma Wright

Today I want to talk about some of the life lessons I have learnt through my years of engagement with the arts, which began when I was five years old and first connected to the theatre. My parents had sought out drama classes for my elder sister to improve her self-confidence, I crashed the party audition, and we both became active members of the local theatre. It was here I was first introduced to Shakespeare. My only memory of this is swatting my hands about and yelling “Out damned spot! Out I say!”.

A Journey of Self-Discovery

I was, like many young people, also battling issues with my self-esteem and self-confidence, but I had always found freedom and escapism through performing. We were a family who road-tripped a lot, and most of my memories of my early childhood involve rattling off stories to pass time and entertain my siblings (and I’m sure annoy my parents). Dr Brainwash was a favourite, a recurring character, who often wore a tartan bonnet with unruly tufts of sewn-in orange hair. At home I attempted to direct my siblings in home-theatre productions (a fun memory here involves telling my younger sister no, she couldn’t play Captain Hook AND “Wemby”), and loved to don a costume (tutus and fairy dresses were the go-to). I always wanted to sit at the grown-ups table, and was curious about everything, my imagination constantly hard at work.

I think I observed fairly early on that people adopted a range of roles to get through life. We adapt to the circumstance, behave differently when we are at home, to when we’re talking to a teacher, at a work-related function, when we’re grocery shopping, or have friends over. Combine this observation with drama lessons, and a young Emma could confidently walk up to most people and start a conversation, because I didn’t have to be Emma. I could just play a role.

Over time, self-consciousness crept further in and characters no longer shielded me in life, though they still gave me that same sense of power and joy on the stage. I took acting lessons in school, and like many other students I worked my way through eisteddfods and the AMEB speech & drama exams. School was not an overly positive experience, and that self-esteem of mine did not cope well. But even in the most challenging of times, I could find joy in the arts, and when everything else felt too much and hopeless, I think that glimmer of joy played a significant role in keeping me afloat.

Over even more time, drama played a big role in teaching me how to bring confidence to the role of Emma, and I learnt the important lesson of always remaining true to myself whilst adapting to meet the situation or environment. Life requires us to play roles, but it’s important not to get lost in them, and that’s a key lesson for all young people to learn. Through acting I learnt not be afraid or ashamed of my sensitivity and vulnerability, because onstage and on camera they are a superpower.

Developing a Transferrable Skillset

Learning to memorise dialogue, to properly use my voice, to think on my feet, to stay present in the moment, to problem-solve when things go wrong, and even to understand the basics of body language has served me elsewhere in life. I’ve transferred these skills to public speaking and my personal and professional communications, and have found that being able to quickly and accurately retain chunks of information often comes in handy.  And perhaps most importantly, through drama I’ve developed empathy and learnt about the impact of someone’s words and actions.

Empathy & Broadening Your Worldview

As an actor, you frequently study and are required to justify characters and their behaviour. Getting to step into other people’s shoes, some closer to myself and others a lot further away, has been fundamental in stirring my interest in human psychology. It has taught me that no one sees themselves as ‘evil’, ‘bad’ people have what they believe are ‘good’ reasons for what they do, even if those reasons are subconscious. This by no means excuses them or makes their actions forgivable, but can help to put things into perspective.

Meeting these characters in rehearsal, in performance, even seated in an audience, has broadened my worldview, and introduced me to cultures, causes, and history to which I was previously unexposed. The arts are educational, and have great potential to reduce stigmas, break down stereotypes, and raise awareness, all whilst encouraging independent and creative thinking.

You Are Your Only Competition

I took up dance classes a little later in life that most, and in that field I always felt like I was playing catch up. I was never the most flexible, I never had the best technique, but I learnt valuable lessons by not being the strongest student in a room. I learnt resilience and to focus on the positives. I learnt the value in a strong work ethic, in commitment and an eagerness and willingness to learn, that there’s always room for improvement, and that comparison is the thief of joy. I’ve learnt that I can only do my best, and I can only do what my best is on that particular day, in that moment, in that room, under the given circumstances. My best today may be different from my best tomorrow. And that’s OK.

I’ve experienced this, the not being the best student in the room, as an actor also. We all experience it all the time in life, and it can be a beautiful thing. If you can learn to shift your mindset and view the people you share a classroom or an industry with not as your competition, but opportunities for connection, collaboration, learning and inspiration, you’ll be a much happier artist and human. Embrace this as a positive challenge, to push yourself, grow alongside your peers, and step outside of your comfort zone.

Art is subjective, it is open to interpretation, so everyone’s going to excel and deliver differently, and taking the ego and competition out of the equation is really good for your mental wellbeing. Plus, if the bar is set high, and you know the only competition is with yourself, you’ll likely be driven to do your best work.

Collaboration is Key

I left school early, and off I went to university, enrolling in a Bachelor Degree in Film and Television. It was here I really learnt the meaning of collaboration and the importance of being a good team player. If you’ve only ever experienced life in front of the camera or curtain, it’s possible to forget about how many people it takes to run a production. Especially as a young person when you’re likely not seeing all the work that goes on behind the scenes.

Studying film, I gained a wholistic understanding and appreciation of the people required to bring a show from the page to an audience. The moral of the story: be nice to everyone, no one’s job is easy, and every job is crucial to the creation of the final product.  

Working in the arts now I know no project undertaking is a single-person sport, it’s always a team effort, and you’re going to have to find ways to work with all kinds of people, and respect and adapt to visions that won’t always align with your own. Cohesion, collaboration, and cooperation in the arts, and in life, is key. I think this has made me a more compassionate person, and someone who works hard to treat everyone with the same respect and without judgement.

Healthy Self-Image

It’s a bit of a cliché, but being an actor does teach you to have a thick skin. Being any kind of creative who faces rejection on a regular basis teaches you this. The arts have taught me, through trial and error, to develop a healthy self-image (it’s an ongoing journey), and to not define myself or my success by the parts I book or don’t book, or opportunities I get in the door for or don’t.

When it comes to casting, so much is outside of the actor’s control. You could be perfect for the part but not book it because you’re an inch too tall, or your hair’s the wrong colour, because of a myriad of reasons that are absolutely unrelated to you as a person or your talent.

I think as an artist you become more receptive to criticism, which is important for growth. Actors for example are constantly taking notes. So are designers, so are stage managers. I’ve learnt to not take things too personally. Leave your ego at the door, listen openly, and filter the helpful from the unhelpful. Remember you will never be loved by everyone or have everyone’s approval.

Finally (at least for the purpose of this article), being active in the arts has taught me how to overcome resistance, and this resistance has forced me to be entrepreneurial and proactive, to multi-task and juggle projects when I need to, and to create my own opportunities. It’s great to create this space for yourself to be empowered, to have some autonomy, agency, and control. And when doors close I know I can build my own ones. Or, knock again. Because that’s how doors work, right? It’s all about perspective.

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