It’s a wonderful thing to be creative, to have your work be a force for putting something of yourself out into the world.
But to make a living at it, sometimes you have to get down to business, and that’s where some creative folks start to bottle up.
Surprisingly, some tried and true methods for making a pitch, giving a presentation, working a room and more come from a place much better known for art and passion than for practicality: the theater.
Patrick Torres, artistic director at Raleigh Little Theatre, and Gab Smith, executive director of CAM Raleigh, knew that the tricks of the trade that help actors connect with an audience can also help non-actors, so they teamed up to present a class called Acting for Creative Entrepreneurs.
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“For us, creative entrepreneurism just means people who are business-minded, people who are inventive and innovative in their work and who may need to communicate big ideas in order to get people to consume what they’re offering,” said Torres, who first taught the class last fall and offered a second session in February. Two more will be offered later this year.
Students in the class have included a model, a screenwriter and others closely associated with the arts, but also events managers, an architect and small business owners who have to be creative in their approach to problem-solving and dealing with people. In the most recent round of the class, there was a reporter: that’s me.
Acting is not something I do (or so I thought). While I love watching plays, I’ve never really longed to be the person wearing a costume and reciting lines on stage. But it turns out Shakespeare was right when he said “all the world’s a stage” – we’re performing, whether we realize it or not, when we’re pitching an idea, interviewing for a job or networking at a party. It’s not about being phony, trying to be someone you’re not. It’s about putting your best self forward and making sure your audience is thinking and feeling exactly what you’re trying to project.
And that, Torres taught us, boils down to three basic tools: brain, body and voice.
Your brain fuels your great idea and finds ways to get you in front of the people who can make it happen. But it also can ensure a successful interaction through active listening, eye contact and mindfulness. Here, improv teaches some useful skills. As we learned through some light, low-pressure improv exercises, you can’t simultaneously listen and think about what you’re going to do next. So you might as well just listen. Then act.
It was scary, but then amazingly freeing to drop all pretense of a plan and just go with the flow. I’m not sure we created any memorable scenes or uproarious laughs in our improv, but we did learn that once you let go of needing to plan your next move, you’re capable of some pretty swift thinking on your feet – a great skill in any line of work.
How you walk into a room and how you shake hands can say a lot. We all know that. But are your shoulders transmitting tension while you’re speaking? Is the angle of your head showing that you’ve already made up your mind while you’re listening? It’s important to read the cues around you, too. Are you approaching your boss about a raise at a time when she’s stressed? Is that guy at the networking event following what you’re saying?
For me, thinking about the space my body takes up in a room – and making tiny adjustments to go big, instead of shrinking down – was a new concept. Owning your space can affect how others perceive you, but also how you feel about yourself. It’s hard to feel timid when your head is held up, your chest is open, and your shoulders are relaxed. If your brain is feeling a little shy, your body can calm things down and project confidence both outward and inward.
Your voice can also determine whether you come across (and feel) big or small. It’s not about yelling, but rather articulating and seeing each sentence through to the last word. (A lot of people tend to fade out at the end of a sentence, which is often where the most important information is.) It’s also important to choose your verbs carefully, and to emphasize them when speaking. Verbs – action words – are what people remember, so make them count, both in their meaning and their delivery. But before you even get to all that, you need enough gas, so to speak, to do the talking. We learned how to take a breath – a real, refreshing breath – before diving into a speech or introduction or even response to a question.
It buys you time to organize your thoughts, but it also makes sure you can speak with enough energy to give your words some life. After all, you can craft the loveliest sentences since Shakespeare, but if you speak them listlessly or all in a rush, your spotlight will go dim in a hurry.
One of the best parts of the class, Torres said, is hearing about how students from such varied lines of work can put the lessons we learned to use. For some, the voice exercises carry the most value, while others really zero in on learning to read and use body language. Just about everyone, it seems, could use some work on active listening.
“In our day-to-day work, we don’t have the time to exercise those parts of our bodies in terms of how we communicate a strong idea,” Torres said. “So this class was built for that reason.”
Gary Robinson, 28, an Atlanta-based actor and screenplay writer who also spends time in Raleigh, found ideas in the February class that will be useful to both aspects of his creative work.
“As a writer, I took note of the overall thought about how different words carry different meaning” in terms of their sound, their placement in a sentence and more, he said. “Being able to navigate a viewer or a reader’s emotions through exactly what I want to portray in the story that I’m writing … was very important.”
Kollin Kalk, 29, who works for an event rental company in Raleigh and also teaches youth martial arts classes, saw the class as a way to learn to communicate better with others as well as himself.
“I wanted to take it because I thought it would help me get outside my comfort zone and interact in a dynamic where I could become my more authentic self,” he said.
Perhaps surprisingly for an acting class, authenticity was a theme that was woven throughout the four weeks. You can find ways to enhance your message and your presence, but you can’t fake it. The tips and tricks we learned were simply ways to tap into the best of our real selves, which was an uplifting experience for most of us.
And that good feeling can be contagious.
Georgia Abikwi, a model, actress and fashion blogger in Cary, put it best as we each summed up what we learned at the end of the final class. In a clear voice with her head held high and a confident smile on her face, Abikwi observed: “Being your authentic self is the best first impression.”
Raleigh Little Theatre and CAM Raleigh will offer two more Acting for Creative Entrepreneurs sessions this year.
▪ A four-day summer intensive June 13-17, CAM Raleigh.
▪ A regular session (one evening a week for four weeks) Sept. 12-Oct. 3.
Both will be held at CAM Raleigh, 409 W. Martin St. For ages 18 and up. Cost for each is $100.
For more information or to register, visit raleighlittletheatre.org and click on classes.