"It's not a finished product, but it's very imperative that you treat it like a finished product because that's what people are coming to see... I've learned to always stand by my work, even if I know that there's improvements to be made."
About Daniel Deorksen – Actor, producer, composer, musician
A graduate of UBC with a BFA in Theatre, Daniel Deorksen is a founder and Co-Artistic Producer of Seven Tyrants Theatre and Executive Producer at Synergy At Play Productions, Inc.
With Seven Tyrants he has written and produced several new Canadian plays, including The Bucky Show, based on the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, which was an official selection of the BC Year of Science. He is a co-composer of Synergy At Play’s original musical, Northville. Recent composition and musical direction credits include Mozart & Salieri, Beggar’s Opera, A Good Woman of Setzuan (7T) and A Room With A View (United Players).
Daniel can also be seen on stage performing original material with his theatrical funk-rock group Two Apple Tobacco.
1. What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?
The primary force that fuels me is the tantalizing excitement of the creative endeavour. I love to create things and discover artistic possibilities. When I think I’ve found something exciting, it makes me laugh. If I can have the delight of voicing that creation onto the performers or other artists that I’m working with – and then if an audience can then experience that – I find that tremendously gratifying. I feel like I’ve literally added something to their overall experience.
But I’m also driven by other things. I’m driven by a desire to see humanity be successful on this planet, and I see tremendous opportunity in art in being able to do that. We can communicate different ways of realistically approaching the word to one another. That drives me forward in terms of the material that I choose to write, and the material I choose to adapt for my theatre company.
But there’s also an art to being subtle when you’re raising certain topics. We’re here to entertain, and although we have to first and foremost be creating an entertaining experience, there’s also an opportunity – that we have as artists – to be journalists. It’s important that we’re imbuing our work with the sort of social consciousness that’s important to us.
And thirdly I’m inspired by the people that I get to work with. I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many tremendous artists, musicians, actors, and multidisciplinary performers, and they inspire me. I was just in a band practice last night where I found myself laughing almost uncontrollably at some of the ideas that some of the members of the band were offering for the composition I brought into the room. We created a very exciting piece out of it. That opportunity that I have to work with amazing peoples drives me forward every day.
What’s the band practice for?
I have a band called Two Apple Tobacco – it’s a theatrical funk rock ensemble band; Frank Zappa inspired music (he’s one of my greatest inspirations). Zappa really emphasized the idea of art being a form of journalism. His entire personna – from performances, to albums, right down to interviews he was doing – was all part of a certain brand he was pushing forward to create a certain trajectory for his work.
The band’s one of my most long standing artistic projects. I’ve been with the core members of the band for over a decade now. We’ve played shows all over the city, and we have an ever changing ensemble. Sometimes 79 players on different instruments. Every monday night we rehearse, and it’s one of the best days of the week for me.
You talked about social consciousness. What element of social consciousness are most interested in challenging, or commenting on?
My interest lies in the possibility of humanity achieving realistic success on this planet. I think that our societal mind is flooded with the perils of where society is going to right now – what with breakdowns in communication and the increase in population. Buckminster Fuller (one of my greatest heroes) believes that humanity can realistically enjoy a high standard of living for everyone on the planet by re-orienting our world production away from weaponry and towards sort of combined ‘livingry’ (as he called it) of all humans. That’s the guiding principle that I’m most inspired by.
I see it as being a very real issue that we have to face, as opposed to an idealistic issue. And in terms of the absurd realities that currently exist on the planet, the artistic context is a great, semi-safe place to be able to expose all these things and hopefully inspire people to think differently about what’s actually going on. Our generation has a real responsibility to find a way out of this societal mess, and as an artist that’s what I can do.
2. Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).
I’ve made so many mistakes in my professional life, my relationships, and my personal life over the years. But I have to be happy to have learned from those mistakes because there’s a reason it’s called trial-and-error and not trial-and-success. If progress was based on trial-and-success, we’d still be banging rocks together to make the rains come.
There are so many failures I could talk about, but the one that I remember often came during my first musical direction gig in my final year of university. It was the final production before graduation, and I was appointed musical director. I remember at one point, I got upset with one of the cast mates for not properly singing something in rehearsal. When it ultimately came to opening night of that show, I came on stage to start this piece – which was a choral piece – and (it must have been my fault) the whole thing started in the wrong key. And there we were, final song of the show, and we – this 12 person cast – were singing it in three different keys.
It was absolutely abysmal.
I learned something as a musical director, because I felt like I hadn’t rehearsed my people properly. I hadn’t instilled them with confidence (this includes myself) and as a result, when we got on stage, it all fell apart. And that was definitely on me. So I’ve always remembered that moving forward. If I’m going to assume the responsibility of putting on my own work and expecting people to do my bidding – in that sense – then I also have to hold myself up to that same standard.
You mentioned ‘instilling your cast with confidence’. What would you do to instil them with confidence?
There’s a place for being a hard ass, and it can be very alluring to do so as a method, but it’s always more successful to inspire a group of people towards a vision. And if they love the vision, at that point they realize the importance of rising to that standard.
3. Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?
I’m not always happy. My greatest moments of happiness come in the achievement of an endeavour – particularly an artistic endeavour where I’m working with close partners, friends, or family. So I’m really a bit of a workaholic. I get the most pleasure out of being creative.
I really love being with people, and if we can create something together… nothing really equals that. So I much prefer to spend any off time that I have playing an instrument, or working on the next stage of a problem.
As a human being, it’s a real oscillation between moments of happiness and unhappiness. I think there’s a necessary cycle.
4. What do you think is your greatest strength?
I’d feel weird saying so conclusively what my greatest strength is, but it seems as though I have a couple of strengths that I’m glad to have. I think I must have some sort of strength in terms of composition and word play.
I love writing and, by my experience, people seem to enjoy my compositions. I feel they’ve gravitated towards the ensembles I’m working in because of the type of material they get to work on.
And maybe that’s another strength. Maybe I have the ability to draw in really interesting, creative people to work with. Again, I feel somewhat presumptuous in saying that that’s the truth… but I do feel almost dumbfounded by the absolute quality of people that I’ve had around me in my life. I have to somewhat consider it a strength of mine that I’ve drawn these people to me, rather than driven them away.
On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?
My greatest challenge is in my overall sense of assertiveness. There was a time in my life where I was guilty of taking on way too much. People would ask me to be involved with things, and I’d feel like the only answer I could give was ‘yes’. Then I’d end up being super burnt out by it all. At a certain point I had to start saying ‘no’.
I want to help people, I want to be there for people, and I want to be apart of things, but I also have to be very considerate of my own health – and that involves being assertive when it comes to my time.
It’s also challenging for me to stay motivated and productive, and to maintain that self discipline. In my opinion that’s the most important thing: self-discipline. I’ve become good enough at it that I’ve managed to create and produce quite a bit of work over the last several years of my life, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s a challenge for me to not procrastinate.
How do you motivate yourself?
Deadlines. There’s nothing like a deadline to light a fire up your ass.
Deadlines from other people, or ones that are self-imposed?
Both. Deadlines from other people are great, but producing your own work is where it becomes more difficult because you have to stick to those self-imposed deadlines. You need to set a date, know it’s coming up, and do the work so that the show is ready in time. That pressure can force you to breakthrough a threshold.
Something that holds a lot of people back unnecessarily is just the vulnerability of putting something up. Especially in the live performance realm, there’s always this awareness that there’s something more that you could do with it. It’s not a finished product… but it’s very imperative that you treat it like a finished product because that’s what people are coming to see.
What do you mean by ‘treat it like a finished product.’ You mean, don’t talk down your work?
Yes, I’ve learned to always stand by my work, even if I know that there’s improvements to be made. I think that’s vital.
The fact that I’ve always attempted to produce the work that I’ve created has been a learning process for me, and even though some of that work is not my best work, it’s part of an overall trajectory and cannon of things that I’ve created that wouldn’t exist otherwise. And some of the best things that I’ve created would not exist without that crunch and pressure of the deadline.
5. When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact time, but I would have been fairly young. It would have had to do with, initially, seeing my dad play the guitar. He used to play and sing for us when I was young, and I pretty quickly wanted to join along.
I was writing folk songs when I was 11 or 12. I knew that this was something I wanted to do, and I never really looked back. But by the time I got through high school and into university it wasn’t really a matter of choice anymore. It was really a matter of identity – I’m a performer and that’s what I have to study.
During that time in my life, I have to thank my parents for supporting me. They were always so supportive of the artistic chances that my sister and I wanted to take in life, and they afforded us that by taking us to classes, and getting us multiple instruments for birthdays.
How many instruments do you play?
Half a dozen or so. I’m predominantly a guitarist (that’s my main instrument), but I’m also a pianist, an accomplished drummer, and I can make pleasant noise on an accordion, a banjo, and a ukulele. I also played clarinet for awhile.
You had many of those instruments in the show you just put up – Mozart and Salieri.
Yes, the greatest hurdle of casting that show was the level of musicianship that we needed. We needed musicians that could play at a classical orchestra level, and that really started to narrow the pool. I was looking for great actors as well. That’s why we did a nation wide call for the show, and nationwide casting, and we ended up seeing a lot of video submissions from all over the place; all over Ontario, Eastern Canada, Seattle.
It was crazy because the people we eventually cast met each other 2 1/2 weeks before we opened. I was really so amazed by those performers.
6. Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?
I always start the morning with coffee, but that’s just a crutch. I think I’m a creature of comfort, and I like to nestle. I do have habits… but I’m not really a creature of routine.
The first thing I do every morning though is address at least some portion of the communications that have come in – it’s a routine I’ve forced upon myself. And then I push ahead, in some way, on some of the projects that I have on the go.
The other thing I try to do is play my guitar. Even if it’s just for five minutes, it’s never time wasted.
Is your guitar in an easily accessed place in your home?
Yep, my guitar and amplifiers are right next to my desk so that I can easily pick it up and play or compose. I also have the ability to quickly plug my guitar into my computer to make a quick garage band recording to save an idea. I try to have my desk set up and integrated in that way. I want to be able to reach for any tools that I need.
After composing something, I usually go for a really long walk. That may be another ritual thing I do. I’m a pacer. I’m always pacing in the rehearsal hall or at home. I go on those walks in order to work through an idea. I think better in motion. I could go on an hour long walk and not even notice the time go by.
What comes first for you? Composing the music or the lyrics, or does it change?
It does change… but predominantly it’s the music. That’s how I listen to music as well. I tend to latch on to the music of the piece first, and access the lyrics later.
I usually start off with some sort of melody that’s in my head. But then often times there’s some sort of subject matter or topic that I’d like to address, and that may even come first.
I try to create restrictions to inspire creativity.
I was once talking to an architect who said she loved her profession because she was forced to be creative within a very specific frame… she couldn’t design a condo suite that was bigger than the footprint of the building.
I’ve always remembered that, because placing those kinds of restrictions… it’s like placing boundaries on an experiment. And I feel it’s the same in terms of being creative. That’s why I love composing for plays, because there’s certain things there that are inappropriate to the project, or that don’t fit.
Even when I’m composing in isolation, I try to set up perimeters to the experiment (like limiting myself to a certain style). In a sense, creativity always starts with a self-imposed restriction for me.
7. How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?
I always face doubt, but I think the way I’ve managed to conquer it is by forcing myself to put something out there… and then standing by it.
Most often I probably go through it alone, but there have been numerous times when I’ve sought out support from the people who are closest to me. Still, as much as possible, I like to try to work through things on my own.
Certainly when it comes to my ability, or being on stage, or creating new work, or going out on a limb with certain choices… one can feel very exposed as a human. And it’s always in those moments when I feel really glad to have the kind of support network that I have.
Honesty is important. That’s one of the reasons my co-producer and I have worked so well together over the years. We can identify each other’s good ideas and more importantly, each other’s bad ideas. In terms of a support network, it’s really important to have editors that you trust… in addition to family and friends that can be appealed to on an emotional level.
I’ve also had many collaborators who’ve challenged the status quo, the dominant idea, and other people’s ideas in the interest of the final product. That’s a really important because it means that there’s no level of complacency, over enthusiasm or preciousness about oneself or one’s ideas. Even as an artist who has a certain bugaboo about maintaining a sense of authority over my work, I’ve learned to be open to the idea that the solution might come from someone else.
8. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?
I have a two prong answer to that, and the first part is about being a great professional artist. Ultimately, for me, that comes down to self-discipline. The artists I’ve worked with in a professional context are not necessarily trained in a certain way… but they all expected a lot of themselves.
I’m inspired by that drive, and I’m inspired by people who hold themselves to a very high standard. Especially in a performance art realm where you have to perform night after night after night. It’s the artist that can put on a technically specific and absolutely excellent performance every single one of those nights who is really treating their work and their audience with respect. And I respect that.
I don’t have a whole lot of respect for people who find excuses to slack off or deliver less than their potential.
The second aspect of it is just the transcendence of the work of great artists. They stand the test of time. Mozart for example. Shakespeare. For whatever reason, centuries after their work, they’re still transcendent in regard to those ephemeral structures that they’ve created with words or melodies. Their work has stood the test of time and still resonates with people. They’re still listened to, seen, produced. That’s the magic goal of any artist: to create work that will last in people’s hearts and minds, and stand the test of time.
All we really have to judge that by is history. Looking back at the great artists that we still remember today, I often wonder why they have survived, and why their work continues to be meaningful to us. I think that’s worth asking.
9. Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).
Do whatever you can to produce your work. Right now is the present, and pretty soon now will be the past. Start creating your body of work, right now.
The actor Bruce Greenwood came to UBC to speak to our class while I was in Theatre School, and the advice he gave that he wished he’d followed was that if you have a particular artistic ambition – if you really want to create something – then go ahead and do it now, and give it your best shot to be successful. Start as soon as possible in your life. Right now, start building the dream that may take years.
This advice was a reflection on his own life. He spent many years acting in a soap opera in order to be a working actor and bring home a paycheque, and at the end of it he felt as though he’d wasted his opportunity to make his artistic mark.
Of course he’s gone on to do very well, but he was a working actor for 10 years, and always felt that it was a waste of 10 years.
For me, I live in a much more feast and famine type of environment, and often have to live in a monastic type way – in respect to expenses – in order to allow myself the opportunity to spend as much time creatively as I can. As a result, I do have a body of work that I’m very proud of. I feel that, at the age of 30, I could be a lot further behind than where I am now.
So go for it.
10. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to money? This is a less specific question, but I’m just curious about your thoughts on the topic. Has your relationship to money changed over the years?
In the grand sense, I am critical of the assistance of money. I see money through a very Buckminster Fuller inspired lens.
As an artist within this particular type of society, I think money should be seen in a couple different ways.
Firstly, it allows you to continue making and producing work. You need to have funding from somewhere. Don’t be afraid to charge for your work. You’re the one that sets the value for your work, and if your work is valuable, and worth it… don’t be afraid to charge for it.
Personally, I’m not too obsessed with money. I’m relatively happy to lead a somewhat monastic life in terms of luxuries in order to buy the space and time to be creative.
I’m concerned that artists charge too little for their work – because it’s a way to get people in the door that don’t have a lot of money. And that’s indicative of a cycle of withering and decay, rather than of a cycle of growth.
There’s a belief that a large portion of audience members in the independent scene are other theatre performers – people who are also often living in a feast and famine sort of way as independent artists.
But, in my personal opinion, theatre and music are populist media. Shakespeare is great proof of this in the English language realm. One of the reasons his work is so transcendent is because he wrote his plays – out of economic necessity – to appeal to all walks of life and layers of class in society. The plays had to have buffoonery and fun to appeal to the average citizen, but also depth and discussion of intellectual issues to appeal to more educated members of society.
So I think the exercise for us as artists is to look for ways to have our art reach as many people as possible, not the least amount of people as possible. Charging a decent amount helps with that because it establishes the value.
11. Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?
Most often they come without warning – like when solving an artistic problem for a show, or when writing a new song. I might spend days or weeks bouncing things around, and then at a certain point there will be a break. Things will start to flow and cascade. Sometimes that comes absolutely out of nowhere, but I’ve learned to, as best as I can, follow that feeling.
I’m no stranger to being in the middle of dinner or a movie and suddenly being like [snaps fingers] ‘I have to go write this down’ and running off to my computer. I’m sure it can be a frustrating aspect of me to some people, but I’m a slave to following that feeling, because I feel like a fool if I don’t.
12. What are some of your favourite books?
A big portion – or at least a significant chunk – of the books that I read are history books. In addition to novels and plays, I have a real interest in world history and ancient history, and I read a lot about that.
‘Critical Path’ by Buckminster Fuller
This is my favourite book of all time. It provides a theory for how we might escape the problems of humanity right now, while using some of my favourite aspects of literature – history, theatrically, characters, poetic/metaphorical type language. He also offers a specific attempt at a solution. He wasn’t just pointing out the problems, but actually offering a thought out comprehensive solution. It’s the kind of book that I would make as required reading for every grade 11 student – but that’s mainly a reflection on how inspiring it was for me.
Follow Daniel Deorksen
Seven Tyrants Theatre: www.seventyrants.com
Synergy At Play Productions: www.synergyatplay.ca
Two Apple Tobacco: www.twoappletobacco.com
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