Success is a Bi-Product of Cultivating Value - 10 Questions with Actor and Writer Rebecca Thompson, Co-Founder of Creative Veins Performing Arts Studio
Rebecca Thompson was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. In early 2014, when co-producing a film in Atlanta, she was faced with escalating location and studio costs. To remedy these costs, Thompson suggested to her partner that they move the production to Northeast Florida. This decision saved the production financially but it also created a new challenge, finding trained talent to bring their script to life.
After the production wrapped up, Thompson reflected on the experience and the advantages of working in Jacksonville, which included lower production costs and proximity to the major television and film production hubs in the Southeast’s now booming market. She knew that if she wanted to bring more productions to Jacksonville she needed to provide professional training to progress the region's talent to the next level. From this, Creative Veins Performing Arts Studio was formed.
Thompson co-founded Creative Veins in 2016. As a working, agency-represented professional, she is dedicated to being a resource to the region's community of actors, comedians, improvisers, and even singer-songwriters. The studio provides scheduled acting classes, stand-up comedy classes, and improv classes. They also offer private coaching, audition preparation, script writing workshops, taping services, and they host weekly open mics where their students can test their material on live audiences.
Thompson believes that with the recent production boom in the Southeast, Jacksonville can position itself as a competitive option for film and television projects. This isn't far fetched seeing as how the city has a rich history related to film and was once known as the "Winter Film Capital of the World." And this is something the city at large should be considering.
Popular movies and television series, such as "The Avengers: Infinity Wars," "Selma," "The Walking Dead," and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," have been produced in Georgia. There, the motion picture and television industry directly employs 28,472 people, and an additional 13,833 for production, which equates to more than $1.7 billion in wages. There are over 2,700 businesses in Georgia that support the industry, including 1,822 production-related companies. In 2014, "Selma" spent $470,000 on in-state wardrobe purchases, dry cleaning and laundry. The film also purchased $180,000 worth of lumber, hardware, and other supplies.
In Florida, the motion picture and television industry are responsible for directly employing 34,245 individuals, and an additional 11,162 individuals through production jobs. These employment figures equate to $2.02 billion in wages. It's worth noting that this is all without a film incentive program.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
I've learned to not give up so easily, that things worth doing take time and hard work, and that if you're going to have standards that upset the status quo, people who don’t share those same values will be against you; acquaintances and friends included. The journey is a lot lonelier, requires a lot more sacrifice, and some people just won’t understand why you’re pushing yourself so hard. But you do it anyway because life is all about meaningful work and meaningful relationships.
When you start doing meaningful work, you’ll attract the people who share your same values. It’s incredible how much you can accomplish when you have hard-working, like-minded people all working towards the same goals; perfecting their craft, doing great work they can be proud of, and providing value to an audience. One of the reasons we place so much emphasis on value is that you won’t ever have to ask for favors or support. It’ll come automatically because, at the end of the day, that’s all any of us really want. We want things of value and to be valued as people.
I’ve also learned that to be the best at something and to stay competitive you must not only work hard, but also constantly look for ways to improve. You can never stop learning. It's very important to me when I look back on what I was doing a year ago or even a month ago that I think to myself, "Oh my goodness, that could’ve been better." If I ever look back at my work and don't feel that way, then it means I'm not improving and growing.
How do you define success in what you do?
Success is a bi-product of cultivating value and it’s what happens when you commit to personal growth. When you master a skill, innovate a process, or create something unique, people will not only appreciate it, but want more of it. I think some people focus on the gold medals and that’s a trap. You can’t forget or neglect the hours of training and hard work that it took to receive that gold medal. That’s with anything though; not just in the performing arts. There are no shortcuts.
As an actor, I define success when people see me living on stage or on the screen. It’s when they don't see me, but my character, that I can say it was a success. As an improvisor, I define success when I’m truly in the moment making strong, original choices that result in genuine empathy from the audience. As a teacher, I ask myself these questions: did I make the student better? Did I challenge them, push them, and inspire them? Does the student demand more from themselves now than they did before? If so, then I’ve succeeded as a teacher.
In terms of how I evaluate success in my acting students, it's about believability. Do I see a person living in the scene or do I see someone pretending, emoting, “shmacting”, disconnected, or trying to muscle their way through it? For improv students, do I see them making bold and innovative choices that allow for a meaningful connection with the audience or are they relying on clever dialogue, gags, and props for cheap laughs? When I'm evaluating success in the stand-up comedy students, are they getting approximately two laughs per minute? Are they original, composed, prepared, dynamic, and professional? Does their material have bite? Do they make sure not to pander to the audience? If they can accomplish all of these things consistently, show after show, then I’d define them as successful.
As a teacher, you must introduce proven techniques, create real opportunities for your students, and most importantly, innovate new ones. I feel it's very important to not just teach, but to also find better ways and new techniques so that your students can beat the competition. If my students can’t move and compete in a bigger market, what have I really given them?
What patterns, routines, or habits do you think advance the likelihood that any given project will be successful and how do you integrate those behaviors into your workflow?
Always be a student. Look for people you can learn from. It's a waste of time to make the same mistakes when other people have already discovered a solution.
Always be improving. Good enough is never good enough. If you get to the top of the mountain than it's your job to make the mountain taller.
Stay in the decision loop. Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, Repeat. It’s okay to fail. But you must learn from it and fail again, but better.
Don't ever think you know it all. Study other disciplines: business, science, psychology, marketing, etc. So much of what we do is tied into other things. Never stop growing and striving to improve.
Creative Veins stands by the belief that Jacksonville is a world-class city filled with world-class talent. What steps do you think must be taken to adequately communicate the region's artistic and cultural assets to the world at large?
Let me clarify that statement, Jacksonville is a fantastic city and it’s full of hardworking, dedicated, talented, and passionate people. We absolutely have all of the right ingredients to be world class, but we still need work; at least from a performing arts standpoint.
Jacksonville has comedy, acting, and improv, but by and large, our performing arts scene is subpar compared to other big cities. I believe this is mostly due to inadequate training and the belief that it can’t be better here when it absolutely can. As of right now, there are acting studios here where the instructors are not actors and never have been. The same goes for some of the stand-up comedy programs here that are being taught by people who have never actually performed stand-up before.
If we ever want to be “on the map” for anything and taken seriously for anything performing arts related (and we definitely can be), we have to innovate, work harder, stop indulging uninformed training and mediocrity, and hold ourselves to higher standards than the world at large. There’s zero reason in a city as big as Jacksonville and with as much talent here that we can’t have our own versions of Second City, the Comedy Cellar, and Broadway.
Creative Veins was founded in 2016. What were your expectations or assumptions when starting and how do those expectations or assumptions measure up against your experiences to date?
I didn't know what to expect when my husband and I started the studio. I knew it would be hard work, but I initially underestimated how demanding it was going to be to run a studio, teach classes, and produce shows all at the same time.
Last October, as we were preparing for The Good Show, a variety show we produced in downtown Jacksonville, which at the time was one of the most ambitious things our studio had done (original animations, short films, live sketches, costumes, a celeb judge from The Walking Dead we flew in from Atlanta, a haunted house, lights, our own food and cocktail menu, you name it, we had it), I started getting really burnt out. I hadn’t had a break in over a year. My husband and I were beyond stressed and mentally and physically drained.
One night, my husband, some of our students, and I were at the studio putting together a truss system that had to be built for our show (that came without instructions, by the way). I stepped out for a minute and when I walked back into the studio, I see all the students working together trying to get it done. A Jewish dentist, a long-haired kid from Nebraska, a retired Navy sailor in his 50’s, a model, and a biracial IT guy were all trying to figure out how to put this truss system together at one o’ clock in the morning. They were failing miserably, exhausted, frustrated, with blistered hands, bruised fingers but they were laughing and joking around in spite of everything.
I just sat there and watched for a second and I had this moment where I thought to myself “there’s no place on earth I'd rather be”. I was surrounded by people who loved acting and comedy as much as me, who worked as hard as I did, who gave everything they had to make what they were doing the best it could possibly be, and I realized everything I ever wanted in life was right there in that room. Some of my students are like family and a lot of my students have become great friends with each other. It’s one of the best parts about this whole thing. I’m doing what I love, with the people I love. And the fact that I also get to do all of this with my husband is truly the best thing I could ever imagine.
Improv is rooted in the "yes and..." approach. How can enrolling in improv classes benefit non-actors and teach them how to be better collaborators, partners, and teammates?
I don't know if Improv does exactly that. Improv is always say “yes” and in life sometimes we need to say no. I forgot to drink the improv Kool-Aid this morning so forgive me if I'm honest about it.
Improv is not a panacea for bad personalities or crummy values. Improv is something to help actors with their moment to moment work, make strong character choices, how not to push an agenda for the scene, but rather to learn how to live truthfully in whatever the given circumstances. It's also really useful for forcing you out of your comfort zone, exercising your imagination, and learning to think on your feet.
We incorporate some improv into our acting and stand-up classes because of this. If you want a better team or better partner, get better people. The truth is, whatever personality you have coming into an improv class is typically how you're going to play the games. If you're a dominate person in the real world you're probably going to push your agenda and not listen inside the classroom. If you're passive in the real world, you're probably going to go with the flow inside the classroom. A good team is about finding the right mix of complementary skills, aptitudes, and personalities.
Improv is about give and take, learning when to push and when to yield, and it's possible that you might become aware of your strengths, weaknesses, and how you respond to certain types of people. Better yet, you might become aware of how to better respond to other personality types. In short, improv is acting, storytelling, and ensemble directing without scripts, rehearsals, and edits. It’s really the demolition derby of theater. It's fun, it's games, it's play, but it's not therapy or a crash course in how to be a better person.
If you want a good team or partner in the real world, you’re better off finding people who have your same values. When it comes to listening and caring about others, people either value that or they don't. Playing Freeze Tag or Zip-Zap-Zop or any other improv game, isn't going to make Linda from accounting and Brad from sales build synergy, but I bet they would have fun doing it. And sometimes seeing people outside of a professional environment can shift our perception of them.
On writing, Hemingway stated that all you have to do is start by writing one true sentence. Do you think the same advice is applicable to stand-up comedy? Additionally, what do you define as the central elements of a good joke?
First off, nobody really wants the truth. Especially when it comes to art. We want our beliefs, values, and world view reflected; not challenged. It's not enjoyable to be told you're wrong or what you think is wrong. We listen to, read, and watch the things that reflect our beliefs and our experiences; and anything contrary to that will most likely offend us.
Think about it, it’s possible that an artist can destroy their entire career in a single tweet. If we really cared about the truth then we'd seek to understand when we were exposed to something that went against our beliefs. I’m not saying this is good or bad, it’s just the way we are in most cases. As far as truth in comedy goes, an audience has to accept what you’re telling them as "true" i.e. they have to believe you and for the most part, audiences will allow you take great liberties with the truth so long as you give them enough to suspend disbelief. Dave Chapelle has a joke about a drug dealing baby; obviously there are no drug dealing babies, but the joke is always well received. In fact, comedy works in part because we don't listen and instead we anticipate what the comic is going to say next.
In its basic form, a joke has two parts; a set-up and a punch. A setup creates empathy and the punchline betrays expectations in a ridiculous way. Hopefully, if you’ve done it right, that will create laughter and laughter is essentially someone agreeing with what you’ve said.
Too many comics make the mistake of trying to be clever or appear smart when they would do better by focusing on telling their own experiences on the universal truths/themes that people can relate to. I’d much rather hear someone’s story about getting their heart broken or how they cussed out their horrible boss than I would listening to someone say “you ever notice that racecar is racecar spelled backwards” or listening to someone do Disney character impressions. (Yes, I’ve actually heard stuff like this).
You also have to give the audience a part to play. Another common mistake new writers make is trying to tell the audience what they should think, for example, “I saw a big, scary guy”. It’s much better to evoke the senses and instead of telling the audience something was scary simply use sensory words like “This guy is walking towards me, six foot eight, covered in tattoos smelling of cheap whisky”. The audience will create what that guy looks and smells like using their imagination because you gave them sensory words and you gave them a part to play in the story you’re telling. It’s much like what reading a book would do.
A joke should also be the right length; too few words causes confusion and too many words cause people to lose interest. Additionally, the higher the stakes, the bigger the laughs. For example, a story about how you broke a glass versus a story where you broke the urn of your girlfriend’s grandfather. Of course there’s a lot more, but we have to save that for our comedy students...
Based on your experience, what is the current model of living and working as an actor outside of a major film, television, and theatre market?
There’s definitely not a lot of paying jobs for actors in Jacksonville. There aren’t any major productions happening here and at best, you might be able to book a Baptist Health commercial or make a few extra bucks if a local wants to make a film and decides to pay the actors for their time. Aside from the Alhambra Dinner Theatre who pays its actors the minimum equity wage and a newly implemented stage fund the 5 & Dime set up for small stipends to their actors, I am unaware of any other ways to make money in Jacksonville as an actor since many expect actors to rehearse and perform on a volunteer basis.
The good news is that we’re close to the largest market in the Southeast, Atlanta, and very close to other markets like Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans. This means that actors can still live in Jacksonville and work in nearby cities as long as they don’t mind making the commute. Nowadays, most auditions are done via email, internet, Skype, and with self-tape auditions so actors usually don’t have to travel unless they receive a callback and/or book the part. And because cost of living is still pretty low in our city, the money you save by not living in a larger market like Atlanta, for example, will allow you to travel to even more markets.
What are the greatest challenges you face as an artist and arts professional living and working in Northeast Florida?
Changing the culture to be more like the acting and comedy scenes in cities like New York and Los Angeles. The city, and especially our community of Riverside, has been amazingly supportive, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some resistance. I’ve encountered some “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” types along the way. Who knew trying to make something better would create a problem for people? It doesn’t matter though. I grew up here and I’m proud to call Jacksonville my home and I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. The applause of our supporters will always drown out the grumbles of the cynics.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector and creative industries?
There are some incredible artists in Jacksonville; not just in the performing arts, but in photography, painting, drawing, sculpture, and poetry, for example. I’d like to see more support for these artists and less support for the mediocrity. Skill is achieved through difficulty and hard work and supporting something that isn’t meaningful and valuable that couldn’t compete in a major market isn’t helping the artist get better and it’s definitely not elevating our scene; it’s destroying it. The last time I was in New York I saw ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ on Broadway. It was incredible and I think most everyone in the audience had both died from laughing and cried a hundred tears by the second half. I didn’t have a problem paying and I’m certain that no one else did either. Because it was worth every penny and more. There’s no reason Jacksonville can’t get to that level.
We'd like to thank Rebecca for her participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for reading.
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