Great Artists are Life Long Learners

Great Artists are Life Long Learners

Mastery Series




Photo: Bernd Uhlig

Two Great Mentors

In business, there is an age old maxim, "bet on the jockey, not the horse." More often, the same is true in choosing a project.  Choose the right director or mentor over the right play. This is true at any stage of your career.

In the early 2000s, one of my most loved mentors, Larry Hovis, stopped me before rehearsal.

I didn't know it then, but he was battling cancer and the treatment was starting to affect his energy. But this day he had a twinkle in his eye and something was a little different in his stride. I knew what was coming. But I admit, I was still nervous.

They want you at Colorado Shakes, he said.  

Weeks earlier he had put in a good word after my audition. He said I was a hard worker and committed and all that other generic stuff a mentor might say. Coming from Larry Hovis, it seemed to have done the trick.

Other BFA students were going to festivals or summer stock or some flaming fantastic workshop run by some flaming fantastic genius and I wanted to stay as sharp as the rest. Colorado Shakes was a nice summer job and it paid well. I was lucky to be considered. But after all the trouble of auditions and getting a reference from the great Larry Hovis, I realized Colorado Shakespeare was not what I wanted.

Earlier that same week, another soon to be mentor, Claude File asked me to take part in a number of projects he had planned over the summer. At the time I barely knew him. He was a mercurial sort, Vietnam vet, passionate but grounded. He came out of  New York experimentalism in the 1970s and Mamet grittiness of the 1980s. He was a member of Steppenwolf, Actor's Studio and at one time was the highest paid actor in Chicago (Or so he liked to say). But most of all he had a well deserved reputation for turning quivering ingenues and arrogant upstarts into focused maelstroms of pure theatrical genius.

I was at a major crossroads. Do I take the money and prestige of working in Colorado? Or do I spend the summer scraping by and working with Claude?

I discussed it with Larry and he agreed. I always appreciated his ability to see the big picture and not take anything personal. I stayed in Austin.

Claude was an actor's director. For him, it was not about pretty costumes or scenery or overall aesthetics.

"That's all just extra once you make the connections." he would say.

"Give an honest story with honest actors. Without that, all this pretty scenery and these costumes are just icing on a dog turd. And no matter how much sugar and roses, no body in their right mind wants to be served a dog turd." 

I quickly learned that my choice was correct. That summer resulted in an intensive director's  masterclass, followed by a one act play festival  where I worked across from Larry Hovis. That fall, Claude directed me in a full length production of Arcadia which resulted in a nomination for best actor in the Austin American Statesman.

Claude invited me to his table. We feasted on a diet of Meisner, Spolin and Chekhov. I devoured everything he had to offer. Then shortly, like I'm sure he had done many times before, he just evaporated from the scene and on to another town and new students. I never saw him again. 

As for Larry Hovis, his swan song performance was a heart wrenching portrayal of Willie Loman in the Texas State University production of Death of a Salesman. In his final scene, there was hardly a dry eye among his students. By then, many of us knew what was coming. That next September he succumbed to the cancer. A great man and great artist passed on and anyone who knew him felt it.

His mentorship and the mentorship of Claude File have proved far more valuable than the $7k or so I would have made in Colorado. That money would have disappeared before year's end. The knowledge imparted by Claude and Larry will always continue. The number one piece of advice they both agreed upon was the importance of lifelong learning.

"Every truly great artist I have known is a lifelong learner." said Larry Hovis. "They did not stop in college. They did not stop in graduate school. They thirst. They ache. They learn. They create. They become both master and student and appreciate both."

Becoming A Lifelong Learner

Find a Mentor

A good mentor is priceless. Their guidance can maximize your potential, advise you through pitfalls of business and ego and avoid burnout or years of avoidable mistakes.

The great social dynamics expert, Tony Robbins suggests we spend

~1/3 of our time with people more advanced

~1/3 of our time growing with people on our level

~1/3 of our time mentoring people less advanced. (Which I've found teaches me just as much as having a mentor)

As a growing artist, you must surround yourself with qualified mentors to keep you sharp and your goals in perspective.

Always Expand Your Horizons

A Great Artist is well rounded. You know all about Shakespeare? Great! Now learn about American Modernism. Learn about Balinese Shadow Puppets. Learn about Mime, West African Story Telling, Anthropology, Mythology, Economics, Dog Grooming...anything that catches your interest.  

Each one of these will only make you more effective with your craft and more marketable with a wider range of expression with each dicipline. 

Know Your True Value

I don't mean, love yourself and demand to be paid. There is a time and place and an unspoken matrix for that (See Here).

I mean be worth a damn. 

To stay relevant in your trade you will need experience. This is especially true in the beginning. With acting, reading is great. School is great. Doing it among professionals is better.

In the beginning, you won't get paid much. Honestly you probably don't deserve to get paid much-if at all. A proven veteran of the stage that has stayed with their craft, maintained a history of professional non disruptive behavior and continued to grow in their craft is far more valuable than any upstart with raw talent.  

In case you missed it. Here is a break down from the link provided

This is called a VRIN model


What value are you offering the world? In a capitalist culture this is touchy. But we need to be honest. As a whole, artists are not valued in capitalist cultures. We are not curing cancer, providing a necessary good or solving major problems. We provide entertainment and education. We feed the soul. In a largely materialist society, the non tangible is seen as less valuable. That's the cold hard fact. So we have to prove worth in other ways.


Is an actor a rare thing? No. How do you fix this? By learning more, becoming more, doing more. An actor that can act, sing, dance and is good at sword fighting is a rare thing and more likely to get work.


Can someone copy what you do. Is your skill set, service etc highly innovative? Is it easy to replicate with little effort? and hard work. Also , you have your biological assets. Don't for one second be ashamed to be different. Embrace it like a badge of honor and learn to market that difference. If you are tall and handsome. Congratulations, you can be a leading men. If you are distinctly Native American, embrace it and market that angle. Every day more and more work is becoming available. If you have a facial scar, (ie Juaquin Phoenix) make it your trademark.  


N=Non Substitutability

This is the other weakness in what we do. We are highly substituteable.

If you need a heart transplant then you must go to a cardiac surgeon. Another type of  doctor won't do. Also it takes three decades of schooling to create a cardiac surgeon. But there are millions of actors and performers. What sets you apart is your level of applicable knowledge, biological assets and skill.

If you can't get Brad Pitt, you settle for Matt Damon or somebody else. The list is endless.

The end of life as we know won't happen, no one is going to die if you don't find the actor you want. 

Know when you should get paid and when you should keep quiet. Not knowing your overall value, rarity, inimitability and non-substitutibility is one of the worst business mistakes you can make.


Learn Business as Much as you Learn Art

"Success is 10% skill and 90% perspiration." It's a variation on what Thomas Edison said. But it holds true.

I've seen more artists burn out due to their own refusal to work hard and learn the business end of their craft than anything else. These are often the same people who ask "why can't people just love me for my art?" "Why can't I just work on my craft?"

Because human nature is what it is and you can't change it. We can go into this some other time. But the facts are, artists who understand business are the most capable of long term success and relevance. Those who don't understand this are destined to a life of unrest, unfulfilled dreams or unrealized potential. 

Famous actors are not necessarily more talented or produce greater works. Overwhelmingly it is because they are hard workers and understand economics and the psychology behind economics.

Example: Beyonce Knowles. Beyonce is the consumate learner and hard worker. She constantly improves on her craft. In early years she got by on her beauty and ability to dance. But she planned for the long haul. When others worked 6 hours a day learning choreography or music. She spent 10. She paid attention to the world around her. She adapted to trends and was proactive rather than reactive. She took control of her finances. She invested in her communities and developed an entrepreneurial spirit. Today, she is still relevant and brilliant and far better than when she started. The rest of Destiny's Child? I don't even remember their names.

Final Thought

To stay relevant, garner respect, wealth and long term success you must constantly learn and update your base knowledge. A well paid and fulfilled artist must find what makes them unique and be unafraid to market that.

Two of my favorite artists, David Bowie and Prince are considered two of the most brilliant musical minds of the past 50 years. They were also brilliant and tenacious businessmen who preached financial sovereignty, innovation and constant artistic evolution.  Without this holistic approach to art they would have remained unfulfilled or at least their careers would have ended much sooner.

And finally:

People won't remember if you went to school at Carnegie Mellon or trained at Circle in the Square 15 years ago or worked with Daniel Sullivan or Lin Manuel Miranda or anything else. They will remember how you made them feel. They will remember if your portrayal was honest and moved them. They will remember how it felt to work with you and collaborate. Maybe it's narcissistic but that's part of why I do this. And to do this year after year and stay relevant you must stay hungry, sharpen your tools and continue to learn. 

-David Bricquet~ENTP~Lifelong Jackass

Managing Director

Oklahoma City Theatre Company



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