Defining yourself as an artist: or how we can contribute to our collective creative landscape.

Kate Walder
Kate Walder. Image by Blueprint Studios

You know who I love? Theatre makers. People who make new theatre. People who say “I’m not sitting around waiting for someone else to employ me anymore. I’m going to write something myself. Or maybe with you, because you’re funny and I’m bitter and together we’ll make a great team.” I love these people, because they’re inspiring and they move our creative industries forward. I learnt a valuable lesson when I graduated from WAAPA. Don’t look at the moulds that already exist and try to fit into one. Carve out your own.

But it’s not always that easy.

I want to talk about this idea because it seems to be floating around in the collective acting consciousness at the moment. We are actors, but also singers, also writers, also directors, sometimes also producers. We are also composers, dancers and painters. Of course we’re not geniuses in every art form, but as creative individuals we’re drawn to multiple forms of expression and we often have skills in a number of areas.

My last column was about creativity and I don’t want to harp too much on the same subject. But I do believe that there is essentially the creative instinct and as soon as you start tapping into it, it just wants to get out. Sometimes it releases itself through text, sometimes through song, sometimes through drawing and although it is very romantic and Renaissance of us to act on these impulses, it can play havoc with our desire to live in the modern world with financial stability and a definable career.

A friend of mine is struggling with this at the moment. He is so passionate about acting and trained with me at WAAPA, but is not getting much work. So where does he put his energy? He has started writing a show, but feels a little like he is fumbling around in the dark. He is Assistant Directing a play, but as second in charge he doesn’t get to exercise his creative muscle much at all. From the outside, this doesn’t look like a terribly disappointing existence, but the main problem for him is trying to define himself. Is he an actor? If he chooses acting, surely he should put all his energy and money into doing 57 acting courses and classes and read every play ever written. But he is also a beautiful singer. So perhaps he should just concentrate on that and do what singers do and study at a Conservatorium in Vienna and steam 20 times a day and listen to Puccini in the shower. But he also dances. So maybe he should go back to class and the gym and pilates and fake tan himself and live on a strict diet of linseeds and cigarettes.

When you’re a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, how do you know what to identify with and where to put your focus? I’m constantly introducing myself like this: “I’m a musical theatre performer. No, wait. I’m an actor, who sings. Also I dance, well I did. I haven’t been to class much recently. It’s more accurate to say I’m a cabaret performer. But only by default. That only happened because I was writing a column. So I guess I’m a writer, again by default. But I’m not just a writer. I’m an artist… in the abstract sense, in the multi-faceted, all-encompassing sense because… Ok let’s be honest. I teach kids musical chairs and space-jump. But only by default.”

There is absolutely no point trying to define ourselves. It’s always changing. And what use is there in ruling out a part of our personality just because the world doesn’t appear to be providing an appropriate opportunity? If I decided to reject performing and throw myself exclusively into a writing career, a part of me would die. The best thing we can do is embrace the skills we have and discover how best to use them right now.

“You live a meaningful existence if you add to life, not take from it.”Complicite, a prolific and completely unique theatre company in the UK, was started by four Lecoq graduates because “they were sick of not working and wanted to make theatre that they weren’t seeing.” Now it is one of the pre-eminent theatre companies in Europe and their work is extraordinary. Much closer to home, you have writers and theatre makers like Warwick Allsopp and Tamlyn Henderson who write whatever they damn well want to and have no desire to fit their work into any pre-existing mould. They started by sending each other amusing text messages and eventually had the creative insight to turn these into a show. What inspires me is their courage to be themselves in their process of invention. Their work is a fusion of bizarre scenarios, fringe of society characters and hilarious word play. They have carved out a niche in the industry and are now enjoying much success. But they have done it on their own because, no doubt, they were sick of not working and wanted to make theatre that they weren’t seeing.

Matthew Hyde as Henry

Of course the term theatre-maker doesn’t exclusively refer to writers. My friend Jason Langley is directing a little gem of a play at the moment called “Here Lies Henry” in the Sydney Fringe. It’s a one-man show and together they have crafted a beautiful, intelligent and wild exploration of what it is to be human. It’s a piece of writing that pushes the boundaries and may never have been seen if a couple of people hadn’t joined forces and just decided to do something.

I’m not suggesting everyone gives up their day job and goes running through the streets blowing bubbles and doing street art and whatever the hell they feel like. I just think it’s better to use our time and skills working on what is meaningful and exciting for us, however that takes shape, rather than trying to work out what archetype we most suit. Today my friend passed on a lovely quote; “You live a meaningful existence if you add to life, not take from it.” I thought it was a beautiful yardstick for us as artists, because it allows us to not think so narrow-mindedly about our own personal success, but instead consider how we can contribute to our collective creative landscape.

Kate Walder

Kate is a 2008 graduate of the BA Music Theatre course from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). During her time at the academy she played the role of Linda in Blood Brothers, The Young Wife in Hello Again, Marguerita in West Side Story and featured in the ensemble of Sweeney Todd and Oklahoma!, for which she was Dance Captain. After moving to London in 2009 Kate played the role of Clio in La Dispute at the Soho Theatre and subsequently at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Since returning to Sydney, Kate has written and performed her one-woman show Coffee with Kate: the Cabaret at the 2010 inaugural Sydney Fringe Festival, a show based on a series of weekly columns she wrote for She is currently co-writing a new show with a fellow WAAPA graduate which will premiere later in the year.

Kate Walder

3 thoughts on “Defining yourself as an artist: or how we can contribute to our collective creative landscape.

  • Nice article Kate, but I disagree with the last quote. ‘Just’ adding to life, as selfless as it sounds, always has a limit and an artist must nourish oneself by taking too. Otherwise we experience the creative burnout, what is there left to draw upon? I’m sure you and everyone reading this has had this before, being sucked dry of all energy from a variety of sources and nothing left to give. The ‘Bleurgh’ factor we get… That quote is a naive pipe-dream, sorry hon.

    To be succinct, taking doesn’t have to be malignant in nature, it can be for some, but if you think of your experiences in life, how you think of yourself and those around you and put them into a “creative bank account” per se, you invest back to yourself as much as you can draw on in order to give back in life. It’s cyclic, we take and we give. Nobody in life is immune to that way of being, everything is a transaction. The ‘how’ in you transacting is the key here. Are you transacting to the benefit of all, just yourself, or maybe the other or nobody at all? Or how is one able to determine what they can give in life? By taking stock of what they know of themselves and what inspires them. That introspection, again, is the me time one needs to determine that, and that itself is a take. And the end result when you determine what’s what? You have given yourself clarity of thought and direction on where you want to go next. Or it can be as simple as reading a novel, watching a film, listening to music. Even going for a quiet stroll by yourself and taking in the world around you.

    There are tons more examples of this but I think you get the point. It’s all give and take, the how is your choice 🙂

    • Kate Walder

      Hi Peter. Thanks for reading my article and for your considered response. I understand how that quote could have come across quite idealistic, although I didn’t mean it that way. I have been learning how to be an artist, with little employment, for the last four years. In fact, it could be said that learning how to nourish yourself as an artist, keeping the passion and curiosity alive within yourself and discovering where to put your energy has been my main focus. It has to be, when the road is not easy. So I understand the notion of give and take and you are quite right in saying it is cyclical. However I was using the quote for a different reason – I have often seen people who are ferocious about their own careers and obsessed with personal gain, doing anything to get more acclaim or social media love. I was suggesting that the quote allows us to “not think so narrow-mindedly about our own personal success, but instead consider how we can contribute to our collective creative landscape.” I stand by this. There is far less a culture of creating for the sake of creating in this country. Getting up and trying stuff out, putting work on and developing it. Being in a company. This is context in which I used the quote. I’m not trying to develop a Socialist Utopia where everyone abandons their own ambition for the greater good of society, but I think a little less focus on ourselves and more on creating interesting and entertaining work wouldn’t be a bad thing.


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