In Conversation: Ruth Blythman

In Conversation: Ruth Blythman

On creative practice, getting your start in production and making music visual. 

Ruth Blythman
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Ruth Blythman

On creative practice, getting your start in production and making music visual. 

Silver Rain is an immersive multi-genre production, featuring projections and opera, with a score written by Ricky Ian Gordon around the words of famous American poets. Can you tell me about how this concept came to be, and what have you learnt through the process of producing the piece?

The creation of SILVER RAIN has very much been a collaborative process between myself, our director, Zac Tyler, projection designer Michael Carmody and our other performer Kirilie Blythman (who yes, also doubles as my very talented sister). 

I’ve always really loved poetry and a few years ago I was working on a song cycle by Andre Previn set to Emily Dickinson poems. Kirilie told me to look at Ricky Ian Gordon’s work, some of which she had performed herself and which was also set to poetry. I fell madly in love with his music! Gordon writes beautifully for voice; the relationship he creates between the text and music is so evocative. It was like this glorious creative vortex I found myself falling into. I saw so many stunning images jumping out of the music, which urged me to discuss with Zac the concept of a show pairing Gordon’s pieces with large-scale projection; the idea just grew from there. Around the same time, I saw a show that Michael, our projection designer was working on at Dancehouse. I was really inspired by his work. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when he was able to join the team. 

I’m very happy to say that the biggest lesson I l have learnt from producing Silver Rain is the power of working with people who you really connect with. Everyone in the team is not only phenomenal at what they do but are an absolute joy to share the creative process with. We all take what we do seriously and share a lot of respect for one another but can have a laugh in the rehearsal room, too.

Your company, Release Creative, was born out of the combined skills of you and your business partner, Zac Tyler, and your passion for creating new works. How important is it for artists to be making their own opportunities to have their work heard - whether they are composers, visual artists, performers, etc. - and how do you recommend young artists get started? 

Zac and I are passionate about this topic and I think it’s tremendously important for young or emerging artists to be creating work and initiating their opportunities. 

Advice to get started? Here’s my three-step guide:

1) Go out and see work.

Not just works within your own genre – see comedy, dance, cabaret, straight plays, go to art galleries – you never know where the next light bulb moment might hit you! It gives you a chance to think about what you like and don’t like when you experience live performance and this will ultimately help inform your own creative voice. Plus, you’re supporting the arts! Win-win!

2) Ask questions.

Don’t be scared to admit that you don’t know everything and to ask questions of people who have more experience than you in certain areas. Sometimes the questions can seem limitless and crippling but there’s always someone or something that can shed light on a subject that may not be your area of expertise. Personally, I research a lot. I go to books, blogs and peers to find answers to things I don’t yet feel I have the confidence to tackle on my own. I also have a great professional mentor in Tim Stitz (Creative Director and CEO at Chamber Made Opera). He’s someone I know I can always go to with questions or ask advice and it allows me to go into certain situations with a different kind of posture because I’ve aired out concerns that I’ve had with someone I trust and respect. If there’s someone in the industry that particularly inspires you, tell them, and invite them out for a coffee. More often than not, you’ll find that they will be happy to give you some of their time and share advice with you if you ask them in a humble and respectful manner.

3) Just do it! 

Seek out collaborative relationships with peers, take the plunge and book the venue, put the grant application in - whatever it takes to get the project rolling. The rest is trial, error and ultimately experience. 

You are not only a producer, but a featured performer in Silver Rain as well. How does your performative background inform your production style, and vice versa? 

Zac and I have both worked as performers and that does help inform how we approach the creation of new work and end up producing it through Release Creative. First and foremost, we talk about the essence of the project and what we want it to achieve – what makes it fascinating and thought provoking? We synchronously discuss the concepts from a producing perspective, where we think we could present the works, what kind of audience it would appeal to, if it’s possible from a financial perspective, and who we could partner with to make the project a reality. So I guess you could say the two worlds of performing and producing co-exist whenever we create work through Release Creative.

Having a portfolio career in the performing arts is becoming, if it is not already, one of the most efficient and popular ways to make a living in the industry. Can you tell me about your portfolio career, and what advice you have to young performers looking to diversify their skills?

I have a business degree majoring in marketing so I suppose that has informed how I have approached my creative career on a more practical level. I also spent the last few years working as Company Manager for contemporary dance company, KAGE (tickets to OUT OF EARSHOT on sale now). So having done that, as well as with my own producing and performing projects, means I often have people asking me what I will eventually give up to prioritise one thing in particular – performing, producing or running a company. However, I see all of these things now being inextricably linked to one another. An interdisciplinary career is very much the type of career that interests me. Any given week I could be a performer, producer, company manager, marketer or tour manager and I love that! For a performer with a portfolio career, I think the benefits are two-fold. First, having more than one string to your bow gives you perspective and makes you even more aware of the fact that your identity and worth isn’t defined by your last performance. Secondly, it means you are able to think of your own creative output as a viable business, something you - not the industry - have ultimate control over. It puts the performer behind the wheel and gives them the capacity to diversify income streams without feeling reliant on and wedded to one particular segment of the sector.

How has your background as a dancer informed your professional career as an opera singer? 

On stage, I think it’s made me quite aware of my body and the bodies of the people with whom I am sharing the stage. I think it’s also taught me a lot about discipline. For instance, in a ballet class, there’s no talking. When a choreographer is in the room you always have one eye on them just in case they are ready to give you new steps or direction. I think this has very much informed what I am like in the rehearsal room and on stage. I tend to have one eye on the director or musical director and rehearsals are not a time to catch up with friends. It may sound rather cold but there is a job to be done and I do take that very seriously in the same way dancers do when they are taking professional classes or preparing for a production.

Between running your own company and running your own freelance practice, you must have had to develop a whole lot of business skills! What are some of the most important things you’ve learnt about working in the industry that aren’t to do with performance technique or the art of singing?

At the risk of making a really bad marketing joke... let's call it the three P’s: Professionalism, Priorities and Planning. 

The value of professionalism is a big one and it definitely is a skill - please acquire it! Be on time, be prepared, treat your colleagues with respect – nothing we don’t all know how to do but it's surprising how many people don't do these little things that do have a very big impact on your overall 'brand'.

From a very practical perspective, I think ascertaining what your priorities are for certain projects is really important. Where does the real value lie? For instance, some projects may make a profit, some may make a loss but the currency doesn’t always have to be financial. For example, if you're performing a work to a community that wouldn’t usually have access to the arts, the currency would be accessibility and outreach. At the end of the day, as long as your financial forecasting is realistic and you end up being able to make a living from what you do, the rest can be worked out on a case-by-case basis. 

Finally, the positive impact of effective planning cannot be underestimated! Every few months I sit down and put together a fairly detailed plan of what I want the next 12-18 months to look like for me as a performer and for Release Creative as a company. I then set smaller goals and this allows me to look quite seriously at what is possible from a pragmatic perspective. In saying that, I remember one of my business lecturers saying that arguably the most important thing to do in business is to create a viable business plan. The next most important thing to do? Be prepared to throw it out the window when things change because change is inevitable. Plan for what you can plan for, and embrace opportunity and change as it presents itself. 

Release Creative present Silver Rain at Geelong After Dark on May 5 2017. More information and tickets available here. Photo by Sarah Walker.